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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
When Katie awoke, it was with an instant, electric suddenness, as if someone had dumped bucket of ice water on her. And that, in a sense, was exactly what was happening; one of New Guinea’s ‘instant cloudbursts’ was descending upon her like a curse.
Even so, she sat up slowly, momentarily unaware of where she was -- or even who she was. Without thinking, she raised her head and opened her mouth to take in the cool water. ( That was one good thing about the New Guinea rains, it was almost impossible to die of thirst on this island. )
Almost immediately, something hard and chunky started to slide down into her throat. Katie coughed twice, almost choked, doubled over and let it fall back out of her mouth. Instinctively, she cupped her hoof to catch the object.
It was part of a broken molar, and now she became aware of a low-grade pain near the back of her jaw.
Pain in other areas was also gradually making it’s presence known; her tendons felt like guy wires that had been installed by an overzealous rookie, her left leg was striped with fire where she had sliced into it while cutting herself free, and her head felt like a kettledrum playing a hot jazz solo.
Her head....her head. What had happened? Where was she?
Slowly, jerkily, the memories began to play back in her mind...moving in uneven fits and starts like a film shown on a balky projector. When the final realization of her situation hit, it arrived with the harshness of an angry slap.
She had crash landed somewhere in the Papuan jungle, her plane was destroyed, she didn’t know how badly she’d been injured, she had no radio, no food, and no way to tell exactly where she was.
What she did have was a group of VERY irate air-pirates probably looking for her -- and also something squirming attached to her left...
Squirming? Attached? Oh God! Ewwww!
Katie hurriedly unzipped and looked at herself. There wasn’t one leech, there were three of them; two on her left breast, one on the right.
And she had nothing with which to burn them off...and she couldn’t pull them off; the teeth would remain lodged in her flesh and cause an infection. They would have to stay there until they let go of their own accord.
Something else occurred to her then, and she furiously began to pull off her pants.
One of the first things Katie MacArran had learned about the New Guinea leeches was that their penchant for attacking her furless areas, the breasts and also...
But when she looked at herself, down below, nothing was there. Wincing and gritting her teeth, she felt, just to make sure. Out of nowhere, a thought bloomed in her head; that this would be one Helluva time for a rescuer to find her.
In spite of herself, she horse-laughed -- and laughed louder, this time in relief, when she felt nothing attached to her nether regions. Her hoof did come back suffused with a pungent smell, and she realized at once that it was av-gas...the fuel that had soaked into her flight suit when she’d crash landed....uh, how long ago was that?
It must have been the gas that had kept the leeches away from her intimates. Thank God for one small favor, anyway. Twisting to the left, she examined the cut on her leg. It was long, but luckily not deep. Just the same, she’d need to clean and bandage it...and very soon. If she didn’t, by tomorrow morning, it would quickly start to fester.
Katie bent to pull her pants back up, and was rewarded with new pain...a sharp, tearing sensation in her left side. She looked down, saw the hole in flight jacket where the bullet had penetrated and wanted to throw her tunic off and look, right NOW. Somehow, she forced herself not to, instead, nickering at the pain as she got her pants back on. Only then did she (slowly) pull her jacket off.
Okay, make that thank God for TWO small favors. There was a bump under her arm the size of a tomato, and a great deal of discoloration showing through her fur, but the skin beneath was still unbroken; she must have been struck by a spent bullet. Either that or it hadn’t been a bullet at all, only a chunk of metal from the engine or something.
Whatever had happened, she was only bruised, not bloodied.
But not for long, Katie knew, if the scum who’d forced her down managed to catch up with her. She had killed not one, but TWO of their comrades and wrecked their plane into the bargain. Even if the air-pirates’ original plan had been to release her unharmed, there was absolutely zero chance of that now. Now, they’d be out for blood, and plenty of it.
AND they knew exactly where they’d forced her down.
Normally, the smartest and wisest thing to do when you crash-landed in the bush was to stick with your aircraft and wait for a rescue. Not this time. Katie could not stay here, not at all, period.
All right, the first thing she would need to do was take stock of her supplies. Well, she had her shikomi-zue, anyway; there it was, laying on the ground a few feet away from her. And she had also managed to throw the shotgun out of the autogyro before it had gone up. Only...where the yiff was the damn thing? She looked around...no sign of the weapon anywhere. No, that couldn’t be right. She’d thrown it out of the AVRO in time, she knew she had. So where WAS that yiffing shotgun? Goddammit, she’d almost gotten burned up trying to rescue the little bastard, and now it was having some jolly fun at her expense, playing hide and seek when she needed it most. Oooo, you little traitor, if I ever get my hooves on...
This rather childish mental tirade was cut off was when Katie finally spotted the weapon, laying half camouflaged amidst a tangle of tree-roots.
With an angry snort, she turned and stalked over to the shotgun...or tried to; she only managed two steps before her legs gave out from under her. In the end she had to crawl over to her shikomi-zue and use it for a prop. Ahhh, there was nothing like getting a little irony in your diet, is there Your Grace? For the first time ever, you’re actually using your cane-sword as a CANE.
When she reached the MAF trench-shotgun, she found the weapon had not been quite the Benedict Arnold she’d imagined. Cradled amongst the tree-roots as it was, it had managed to stay safely out of the mud.
But when Katie checked the magazine...empty!
Okay, so the shotgun might not be a traitor...but someone else sure as Hell was. If the pinto mare had only suspected that before, now she was absolutely certain of it. She never flew her mail runs without a fully loaded weapon...never. And everyone in Iso knew it.
She dropped the shotgun in disgust, and realized with a start that the rain had ceased. Dammit, when had that happened? She was still considering the question as she hobbled over to the charred skeleton that had once been her autogyro. She didn’t expect to find anything of value left, but you never knew. But then, as she came closer, she saw that the fire had not consumed the entire aircraft after all; from the second half of the aft compartment backwards, everything was still intact. So maybe, just perhaps....
Like every pilot of the New Guinea back-country, Katie MacArran always flew with possibility of a forced landing in the bush...which was why, like many another of her brethren, she always carried a survival kit; in this case, stowed in a niche behind the autogyro’s passenger seat.
It took her several frustrating and painful minutes to haul herself into what was left of the aft compartment. When she did, the first thing Katie saw was the blackened remains of the shotgun bandolier, the shells blooming like flowers from where the heat has set them off.
Except for the last two.
Putting the shells in her pocket, Katie bent over to peer into the lee of the compartment where the survival kit was stowed. At once, the blood rushed into her head and an explosive pain filled her skull. She let out a short, sharp whinny and thrust a hoof inside the space, feeling for anything that might be there. After a few seconds of frustrated groping, her fingers touched canvas, and she grabbed the kit and hauled it out.
It consisted of a small rucksack, about the size of throw-pillow. Though it was peppered with smoky spots here and there, it was still largely unburned...as far as Katie could tell through the throbbing in her head, it was.
She climbed out and lowered herself gingerly back to the ground, then carefully opened the pack.
The first thing she found was an oilcloth about the size of a bedsheet. Good. Under that was a bundle of what looked like wood splinters, tied with twine. These were fatwood tinder-sticks. Very good Next to them was a small, tin box, painted in white and marked with a red cross. Very, very good. And under the first aid kit was bottle about the size of a hip-flask, filled with a dark brown liquid, and sealed with wax and a cork.
Katie opened the first-aid kit and removed a piece of cotton, then carefully uncorked the bottle.
It contained a rather curious mixture; two parts kerosene to one part tobacco-juice, and one part quicklime. And when Katie applied it to the first of the leeches, the parasite instantly stiffened and released her, shrinking like a prune as it dropped away.
“And STAY off!” she snarled at the dying pest, then set about removing the other two.
With the leeches gone, Katie turned her attention to the cut on her leg, wincing and neighing as she forced herself to swab it with iodine. After wrapping the wound in gauze, and binding it with adhesive tape, she resumed the inventory of her survival kit. A folding knife...won’t need that, not with my shikomi-zue. A flint and striker...will need that. A compass...you BETTER believe that’ll be useful. A small signal mirror...Yeah, IF I can get out in the open and it’s not raining. A magnifying lens...ditto. A fishing kit...Forget it, I’m an herbivore. A sewing kit and waxed cord...I’ve got a feeling about this one. A candle-lamp with one spare...need that all right. Four safety pins, can probably use those. Halezone tablets...Yes, IF I had a canteen. A small canteen...never mind. A Very pistol with two flares....Thank you, God. A bottle of quinine tablets...Ohhhhhh, whatever you do, don’t lose those, Katie MacArran.
She repacked the kit, but did not sling it over her shoulder right away. First things first. Finding the shotgun again, she jacked open the magazine and inserted the two shells. Only two...but if she encountered the bastards who had downed her, they would have no way of knowing that she was no longer carrying an unloaded gun.
Or...would they? It occurred to Katie then that this must have been why the traitor hadn’t removed the bandolier from the plane; she would have instantly noticed it was gone. The shotgun itself, on the other hoof, you had to crack open to tell if it was loaded. Yes...that must have been their plan. If she had been quick ( foolish?) enough to reach the shotgun after they forced her to land, she wouldn’t have realized she was holding an empty weapon until it was too late.
Katie was just about to heft the survival pack over her shoulders, when something else occurred to her and she was seized by a moment of wild, irrational panic.
Linc! She had forgotten about Linc, the little, homespun effigy of her childhood hero, her good luck charm. He had burned up in the...
Then she remembered that when she’d switched aircraft earlier that day, she’d neglected to transfer the doll-figure to the autogyro.
“If I ever get out of this,” Katie promised her absent talisman, no longer panicking, but still not quite rational, “I swear, I’ll never fly without you again.”
She leaned on her shikomi-zue for support, and began to survey her surroundings. The only break in the trees seemed to be three-foot space about twenty degrees to the left. All right, that would have to do. She made her way over to the space and gingerly squeezed through.
Immediately, Katie found herself in a nightmare tangle of trees, vines, and brush, as thick as a dog’s hair and with no rhyme or reason as to their growth. The only way to move was by looking for the closest thing to a break in the vegetation, and then heading in that direction. After two hours, she seemed to have gone ten, perhaps twenty yards. The only good thing about it was that with the jungle dictating her course of travel, there was scant possibility of ending up going in circles.
That, and the fact that if the air-pirates showed up anywhere close by, she’d have only to stay motionless to remain concealed from them.
“Why?” Katie asked herself again, as she continued to press forward through the rain-forest. She’d had nothing of value aboard the autogyro...surely they must have known that. Hell they’d been aware of practically everything else. They’d known her flight path, her time of departure from Lae and the fact that she’d be aboard the autogyro instead of the Fortuna. They would HAVE to have known she had nothing aboard worth stealing.
So, why had they jumped her like that? While Katie MacArran was well aware that she was more than a little easy on the eyes, she didn’t flatter herself that a band of air pirates would go to such lengths for the express purpose of having their way with her.
So, what the Hell had they been up to? Of course there was that bullock, the one she had forcibly ejected from her mine the first time she’d come to Iso. Yes, he certainly had a bone to pick with her...but come on, already. All this trouble just for some petty revenge? It didn’t add up, and besides -- that big jerk was nobody’s leader, not with his dim wits. In fact, whoever WAS in charge of this little escapade was most likely reading him the riot act about now for allowing the prize to escape, maybe even waling the tar out of him. Perhaps, he was even going to get his head blown off for his little faux-pas.
Katie hoped not. She wanted that bastard for herself....and oooo, when she had him...
It was a thought that the pinto mare had been more capable of harboring when she’d set off from Lae back to Iso. What was different was that she was now capable of ACTING on the idea. Something had changed within Katie MacArran in the space of the last few hours. Something dark and icy was awakening within her. And it was soon to become fully aroused.
She pushed through another break in the trees.
And this time, the ground sloped away beneath her, dropping into a smaller version of the grassy bowl that had encompassed the Ayon village. The difference here was that there was no lake and no gathering of huts...but there WAS ( Oh, thank you, Lord! ) a trail...a beautiful, wonderful trail, neatly bisecting the little hollow from one end to the other.
It took Katie several, frustrating attempts before she finally found a place where she could scramble down to the floor of the bowl, and even then it was painfully slow going. Then, when she finally reached the bottom of the slope...won’t you come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly? The grass here was as high as her chest, and with edges like a newly stropped razor. And it seemed to be waving in the wind, even though there was not even a hint of breeze blowing.
Katie squinted and tried to peer closer...then recoiled with a neigh of horror
The movement in the grass was leeches...hundreds, maybe thousands of them.
Several breathless minutes followed, after which Katie gave vent to a few more moments of highly piquant language. Then, drawing her shikomi-zue and, using it as an ersatz machete, she plunged headlong into the thicket, cursing at every step.
It was slow going. Her cane-sword was made for cutting flesh not grass...and so was the grass. Before she had gone ten yards, her arms were latticed with what looked like paper cuts. But she had to keep moving, there was no turning back now...not with leeches, leeches everywhere. If she could just keep moving, they wouldn’t have time to latch on to her. Except...now the Papuan humidity was closing in on her like a fist, making her feel as fettered as Marley’s ghost with every move she made.
It was no use, Katie had to stop to take a breather, if only for second. And so she halted, hooves on knees, her lungs feeling like an overheated bellows. She felt a leech drop onto her arm, and flexed her panniculus muscles; the muscles that allows a horse to voluntarily ‘shudder’ it’s skin in order to ward off pest. That gave her an idea and she gave herself an equine body shake, feeling several more of the parasites fall away. Oh God...how many was she going to find attached to her when she finally made the path?
Not wanting to think about it, she pressed onward once again.
For what seemed like the next decade, the path came no closer...but at least the grass seemed to be thinning out as she moved on. Again she was obliged to halt for breath, and again she stopped, leaning over, with her hooves on her knees.
And freezing in place, eyes wide, frame trembling.
Something was squirming across her boots...and this time, it wasn’t a leech.
It was almost fat enough for one of the little bloodsuckers, but nearly a meter in length, and covered in scales rather than slime. It’s color pattern was not unpleasing to the eye, alternating rings of cream and cafe-au-lait.
Katie recognized it at once -- it was the snake known as the death adder. Not the deadliest serpent in Papua; the taipan destroyed all competition there. But, with her being at least several days and miles from the nearest medical, the point would be highly moot if the reptile chose to bite.
She wanted to scream her head off. SHIT! The death adder was supposed to be nocturnal by nature. What the yiff was this one doing out in broad, goddam daylight? She felt her hoof tighten around the hilt of her sword...but knew that there was nothing she could do; the snake would have it’s fangs in her before she could get the shikomi-zue halfway out it’s scabbard. The only option was to remain very still and wait for the adder to move on.
Much to the amusement of the leeches. As if fully aware of Katie’s predicament, the parasites began dropping on her in what felt like droves.
It was here that Katie actually began to wish the snake crawling across her hooves WAS a taipan – never mind that if that were the case, it most likely would already have struck her. Taipan snakes were active and fast-moving, death adders were not. And this one seemed to be particularly uncaring about how quickly it got on it’s way, flowing across her hooves with all the hurriedness of tree sap in February.
Then the death adder stopped, jerking it’s head back with a sudden, angry hiss. Katie almost felt her bowels loosen. But then, apparently satisfied that there had been no danger, the reptile slithered placidly on it’s way. Katie watched as the needle-like tip of it’s tail crossed over first one boot, and then the other. It seemed to take forever.
Finally, as snake began to move into the grass, Katie also moved...and moved very fast.
Of course the reptile had meant her no harm, they had simply crossed paths unexpectedly. Hell, it probably hadn’t even known it was crawling across the hooves of a living being. There was no reason not to let it go.
Except that Katie had already been attacked by air-pirates, forced to crash-land in the bush, probably suffered a minor concussion, come THAT close to being burned alive, and now she had leeches all over her.
So, what she did next was hardly surprising. In a move that would have made Shang Li-Sung applaud with gusto, she wheeled and drove the tip of her sword down through the death adder’s head, pinning it to the earth. So rapid was her movement, the snake was probably dead before it realized what had happened.
Katie’s next action was even less necessary; she chopped the adder’s head off and slung the rest of it over her shoulder. It would make a nice purse...or something.
Then she shook herself again.
On reaching the pathway, the first thing Katie did was drop her pack, shotgun, sword, (and snake), then hurriedly strip her clothing off.
Her upper body was literally covered in leeches, especially her breasts...that was the bad news. The good news was that somehow only two of the parasites had managed to attach themselves to her.
The bad news was that one of these was an elephant leech, a monstrous thing the size of dill pickle, and already half gorged.
Which was why, after getting rid of it, Katie decided to leave her upper torso uncovered. That way if any more of the pests went for her she could shudder them off with her panniculus muscles. And if rescuer saw her like that...hell, let them see her like that. She couldn’t make a particularly appetizing sight at the moment, exposed breasts or not.
Besides, she was too tired to care.
She stuffed her tunic and bra ( and what was left of the death adder ) into the rucksack and moved on.
It didn’t require a great deal of calculation for her to decide in which direction to go...to the right and the northeast, towards the Iso river valley. ( A quick glance at the compass confirmed this. )
The pathway was not well used, but neither was it overgrown and largely forgotten. When she entered the jungle again, Katie had no trouble keep on track.
She did, however, have one other problem.
Like all equines, creatures of the wide, open spaces, Katie MacArran instinctively disliked deep forests; they always had a claustrophobic feel to them. By rights, she should have long since overcome this tendency; after all, she had only traversed the Papuan bush HOW many times since her arrival?
Except that in those earlier instances, she had been traveling in good company. Now, she was totally, and utterly alone. And so, as Katie trudged along, the old bugaboo began to rear it’s ugly head. The further she progressed, the more it seemed the trees were pressing in on her. It didn’t help that the interior of a rain-forest tends to be about as comfortable as the average sauna bath. Before she had gone even a quarter mile, Katie was moving furtively and cursing under her breath; the only sound to be heard. Contrary to what most folks believe, the recess of a rain-forest is a largely quiet place, practically devoid of any activity. Most ‘jungle’ birds and other fauna actually live on the edge of the forest, retreating into the depths only when threatened.
And so, to keep her mind off the enveloping foliage, Katie allowed her thoughts to wander...and they soon found their way into a place of darkness and burning lye...a place she had last visited when she had revealed to Samuel Bronfman that her brother Colin was actually far less indispensable to the running of MacArran Distilleries Ltd than her host had imagined.
She was going to get out of this...and when she did, the air-pirates who had put her here were going to suffer a terrible vengeance. She would hunt them down...ALL of them. There would be no mercy and no quarter...and especially no involvement by the constabulary. The big carabao who had served as gunner on the second plane...yes, he was the key. The pirates had made a huge blunder, letting him be a part of the team that had ambushed her. Now, she knew the identity of at least one of her assailants.
Yes...that was how to do it. Sooner or later, that big lunk would turn up in Lae or Wau.
And when he did, Katie would have a reception waiting. She smiled wickedly as she remembered the promise she had made to the carabao the last time she had seen him.
As soon as the bull had led her to his compatriots, that was one vow she fully intended to keep.
But not before she dealt with the turncoat who had sold her out. Whoever he was, she would root him out, and then hold him up as an example to the other miners as to what happened to traitors in the Iso valley.
And it wasn’t going to be pretty.
It would have shocked the Katie MacArran of the previous day to hear her thoughts now...not the words per se, but the fact that they were forming with the accompaniment of neither oaths, nor vitriol. Her inner voice was quiet, almost subdued in nature; she was making her plans with no more passion than she would have expended on what to have for lunch.
It was this, more than anything else, that made them truly frightening.
Katie decided to bed down for the night at the edge of the first clearing she encountered. Though it was still light, she felt she had put enough distance between her and the autogyro that she could afford to stop for a while...and who knew how much further she’d have to travel before she came to an open space again.
Besides, she hadn’t eaten all day, and it just so happened that there was a plantain tree nearby, situated just a few feet off the trail. Though most of it’s fruit was still unripe, at least one of the bunches looked edible. After cutting it down with her cane-sword, Katie used the flint and one of the fatwood shards to start a small fire. Once she had it going, she didn’t bother to stand on ceremony; she simply skewered one of the plantain on a stick and toasted it over the flames like a hot dog.
In the pages of Gold From Hell, she would later pronounce it the most delicious plantain she had ever eaten. So much so, that she had two more...and would have eaten another one, had not the rains chosen that moment to commence once again.
Not necessarily bad thing...rain also meant drinking water, and Katie needed that more than food right now. Using a plantain leaf as makeshift funnel, she filled and drained her canteen twice, then filled it again and stoppered it.
When she awoke the next morning, she was laying on a makeshift bed of moss and leaves, piled on a small rock outcropping, with the oilcloth tied to some overhead tree branches in a crude parody of a lean-to.
She did not remember having constructed the shelter, or anything after capping the canteen. She looked at her watch...almost 10:30. Christmas...and the sun hadn’t even set when she’d fallen asleep.
Remembering her injuries, she sat up slowly, tentatively. The pain in her side was as acute as before, and her joints all felt like rusty hinges....but the throb in her head had ebbed to a low pulsing, and her brain no longer felt fogbound.
Not a huge improvement, but she’d take what she could get.
After a quick check for leeches, ( None, thank God...but plenty of mosquito bites. ) Katie swallowed one of the quinine tablets, grimacing bitterly at the taste and then repacked the rucksack As an afterthought, she cut two more of the plantain, tying them to the pack with some of the twine. She would have eaten one for breakfast right then and there, except that unlike their cousin, the banana, plantain have to be cooked before they’re edible...and Katie had places to go this morning.
She hefted the pack and wound her watch, setting off once again down the trail
It was creaky going at first. Katie’s limbs felt as heavy and awkward as if she were encased in hard leather. But as she continued to move on, the kinks gradually worked themselves out of her joints and soon she was able to pick up the pace.
The forest here was not nearly as dense as it had been the previous day, and she experienced no sense of confinement. Twice, she found the path blocked by fallen trees, but was easily able to skirt them both.
Katie had just traversed the second one, when she heard it, the faint unmistakable drone of an aircraft engine.
And it was getting closer...but thanks to the canopy of trees overhead, she couldn’t see anything except small bits of sky.
The previous day, Katie would have torn open her rucksack, grabbed the flare-gun, and rushed pell-mell down the trail, desperately searching for an open space from which to fire off a signal.
This morning, however, her head was cooler. She opened the pack carefully, quietly cursing herself as she realized the very pistol was all the way down at the bottom, ( never again! ) and began to dig it out.
Meanwhile, the engine continued to get louder. And Katie felt that first, faint sense of rising panic. She stifled it...MADE herself stifle it.
But the aircraft was having none of that. As the pinto mare got the very pistol out and began to load it, the song of it’s engine began to fade.
Katie snapped the breech shut. Was there an open space around anywhere? Dammit, why couldn’t she have been an arboreal species? She could have scrambled up one of the trees trunks and...shut up and MOVE!
She sprinted down the trail, looking for an opening...any opening through which she could shoot the flare. Meanwhile, the sound of the aircraft continued to become fainter and fainter.
And then, yes...hallelujah! A break in the branches overhead, a gorgeous, wonderful break...as big as a picture window. And she could still hear the plane, barely, but it was still there. Katie pointed the very pistol at the sky and pulled the trigger. With a loud, hissing pop, the flare burst from the barrel and shot into the air, leaving a glowing incandescent arc in it’s wake.
...for about five feet. Then it dropped to the earth like shotgunned quail, sputtering out somewhere in the brush.
By the time Katie had finished cursing, the sound of the plane was gone. With nothing else to do, she returned to where she had left the rucksack and packed it up again.
The sun was just crossing the meridian when the trail began to drop downwards, gradually at first, then more steeply. Then, it began to zig-zag, and Katie quickly realized that she was on her way down to floor of the canyon. Was that good, or bad? Honestly, she didn’t know, and did it matter anyway?. Wherever this trail was going, she was bound to follow it, for better or worse.
As the pinto mare moved along, the vegetation became gradually more sparse, and the trail itself more interspersed with rocks. She must be very close to the canyon wall, Katie reasoned...and no sooner had this thought crossed her mind, than the pathway burst out of the jungle, and fell away into a long, rolling drop along the cliffs. Katie stopped for a moment, looked down, and swallowed hard. The trail didn’t fall steeply here, but it was so narrow that in places, she would be obliged to move by putting one hoof in front of the other.
And if she made one slip...there was nothing between the edge of the path and the deep void below.
She swallowed again and stepped forward.
At least the trail was solid. Nothing crumbled or broke away from beneath Katie’s hooves as she
made her descent. But the flies and mosquitoes were especially fierce here...seemingly aware that she couldn’t move quickly to slap them. By the time she reached the canyon floor, her face was going to look like an uncooked meatball.
So were her breasts. Dammit, she should have put her top back on before starting her descent. Why hadn’t she thought of that? Damn! Damn! Damn!
Downwards she went...moving with the slow, stylized steps of an actor in a kabuki play. She began to wonder if she would make it to the bottom before darkness fell. She hoped so; this was no place to stop for the...
Then she heard it....the sound of the airplane again. YES! And this time, there was no way they could miss her...even if the flare-gun misfired again. Forcing herself not to move too quickly, she laid her shikomi- zue down and unslung the shotgun and rucksack. And this time the very pistol was on top of the pack, right where it was supposed to...
The plane came wheeling around a bend on the canyon...and Katie’s breath, and her heart, slammed to a halt.
Had the aircraft not turned as it came into view, she probably wouldn’t have seen it...the long protuberance jutting out ahead of the propellor, like an oversized shoehorn.
It was the Loening OL-8 again.
It was the air-pirates.
Katie’s first thought on realizing this was a feeling of gratitude, of all things. Thank God for that dud flare. The aircraft now coming her way was the same one she’d heard earlier that day. There was no mistaking the song of that engine; it had practically tattooed itself on her psyche when she’d heard it through the trees. And if the flare gun hadn’t misfired...she would have unwittingly led the air-borne bandits right to...
Her second realization was that they were about to do that anyway...and if they did, she’d wouldn’t just be a sitting duck, she’d be a duck in shooting gallery.
She had to find cover, some cover...ANY cover.
But there was absolutely nothing nearby for her to hide behind...not an outcropping, not a boulder, nothing anywhere.
With no time to think, Katie dropped her pack and compressed herself against the trail, stretching out with her arms and legs to make herself as flat as possible, wincing hard as a sharp stone jabbed into her left nipple. Almost immediately, her traitor of a tail did what a horse’s tail naturally does when its owner becomes frightened; lifting upwards like a signal flag.
Katie gritted her teeth and thought of what would happen if they caught her; each of them taking his turn while the others laughed and hooted in derision. She though of the shame, the pain and humiliation...
And her tail did what a mare’s tail naturally does when she’s threatened with an unwanted sexual advance; it clamped down tightly against her rump.
Katie closed her eyes, hearing the engine getting louder and louder, waiting for the inevitable change of pitch when they spotted her and the pilot altered course. Then, would come the chatter of machine guns, the last sound she would ever hear.
Louder and louder the engine became...louder, until it seemed to be filling her skull. Dammit, why didn’t they shoot? Shoot, shoot, and get it over with!
But then the sound began to recede into the distance...still in that same, steady drone. Katie’s fists remained clenched and her tail clamped as the sound faded to a low hum, and then silence.
She tried to stand, and instead burst into tears. Somehow, she didn’t know how, they had missed her.
The canyon was halfway enveloped in shadow by the time Katie reached the floor. And the first thing the did when she arrived was put her top back on...screw the leeches. She would have liked to bed down for the night right here, but unfortunately, anyone coming down the canyon trail would have a bird’s eye view of her position at the moment. She had to move on, just for a while, until she reached the next bend, where she would be invisible from above. Then, she could finally rest.
‘For a while’ actually turned out to be for QUITE a while. No matter how far she traveled, the cliffside trail remained stubbornly visible, as if mocking her from above. Meanwhile, the pathway she was following was taking a meandering, lazy course – and one that was not meant for the lazy. There were fallen trees to climb over, there were boulders to traverse, and several times Katie was obliged to cross over the creek that formed the bottom of the canyon, using fords consisting of half rotted logs that required her to edge across sideways and not look down. Very often, the trail would compress to a breadth even narrower than it had been along the cliffside, with rock walls on one side and the stream on the other.
It was a relatively small watercourse for New Guinea, the width varying from a yard or two to that of the average city street, with several larger pools the size basketball courts. It was shallow enough in places that Katie could have skipped the log crossings if she’d wanted to, but she could see the coating of moss on the rocks, slick as axle grease.
And besides, she’d had her fill of leeches for one day, thank you very much.
The air here was even more humid here than it had been up above, and the mosquitos much more plentiful; their whine was literally everywhere. The only other sound was the occasional gurgle of the stream passing between the rocks, and a smell was like a cabbage field.
Her bruised rib was aching fiercely now, but at least she wasn’t having trouble breathing. Not like when she’d almost cracked up the autogyro the first time she’d try to fly it.
The autogyro. Like all aviators, Katie MacArran was not incapable of developing feelings towards her machines -- and now, for the first time, she began to feel the loss of the aircraft that had faithfully guided the Republic to and from the Iso mining camp on so many previous occasions..
Her ears went back and her nose wrinkled. One more thing to make the bastards pay for.
Coming around a bend in the trail, Katie saw that it was blocked by another fallen log, a big one, the circumference of a water main. Beautiful! It WOULD have to be right where the trail narrowed between the canyon and a fairly deep pool, which meant no going around this one. She sighed, then turned and looked over her shoulder. The trail along the cliffside was finally no longer in view. Well, that was one piece of good news. Once she made it over the log, she could finally stop for the night.
But first she had to GET over that log. The first branch that she tried to grab broke off in her hoof, ditto for the second. The third one held and she was able to haul herself up and over the fallen tree. On the way down the other side, her pack caught on the stub of a branch, tipping her sideways and dropping her in a tangled mess, almost on her nose.
Katie quickly pulled herself back upright. At least she hadn’t landed on her injured....
That was when she saw the bush at the edge of the stream, or maybe it was a small tree. Except, why was it black, instead of green?
The answer came when the ‘bush’ turned and looked at her, revealing a bright blue head with a neon wattle, and an armored crest of solid bone.
Katie’s heart shot into her throat. The ‘bush’ was a cassowary, a flightless bird with the head of a turkey, the body of an ostrich...and the scalpel-sharp claws of a fighting gamecock.
Except no rooster ever had legs as big and powerful as a cassowary’s. They were one of the most dangerous animals in New Guinea, especially the big females, like this one. These birds could literally disembowel a victim with one kick. Striper McKenna had seen it happen.
Cassowaries were fast, too. They could move through the brush at bewildering speed, coming up on their enemy from behind and attacking before he knew what was happening. The Ayon were even said to have modeled their jungle warfare methods on the big bird.
The only good news was that cassowaries, as a rule, were shy creatures who preferred to retire rather than fight...unless they were cornered.
And Katie was confronting this one in a particularly narrow space, with a rock wall on one side and water on the other.
The bird flapped it’s stubby wings and emitted a harsh, rasping cry. “Krawwwk! Krawwwk!”
Whatever that meant, it wasn’t friendly. The cassowary lowered it’s head and called again, louder this time. “KRAWWWWK!”
Katie reached for the shotgun, knowing she would never make it. The obvious thing to do would have been to retreat...except for that goddam log at her back.
“KRAWWWWK!” Now the bird was bobbing her head. Last warning, lady!
Katie glanced to her right. The pool came to a head here and the river was relatively shallow , a series of broad riffles, a foot, maybe two feet deep, passing between a pair of sand-bars and emptying into a second, larger pool.
Ohhh, the Hell with the leeches! Katie sidestepped towards the bank, moving slowly, trying to look as unthreatening as possible. The bird rasped again, “KRAWWWK!” but still did not move.
Katie stepped into the water, it felt cold as an electric shock. Jesus! Was this New Guinea or Newfoundland? Slowly, still keeping her eyes on the cassowary, she crab-walked her way across the riffles. Twice, she almost lost her footing on the slippery rocks but somehow managed to keep from falling. Would the bird realize that she was giving ground? Or would it think she was only circling to attack? That was what the cassowary would have done if the situation were reversed. Katie reached for the shotgun again, drawing it carefully over her shoulder as she moved onto the sandbar. Dammit, did cassowaries like to cross water? She couldn’t remember.
The bird looked at her and called one last time, “Krawk!”
Then, apparently unconcerned, it turned away, dipping it’s beak into the pool and beginning to drink.
Katie puffed out her cheeks in a huge breath. The bird had understood...it had realized she was moving away from...
The attack came with the sudden fury of a lightning strike. There was no time to react, no time to even try to defend herself.
And death was almost instantaneous.