The Last Leopard

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Book: The Last Leopard Read Online Free PDF
Author: Lauren St. John
and the trunk sagged ominously.
    “Ben!” cried Martine. “Ben, hold on. Help is on the way.”
    This time Ben didn’t reply or move his head, in case the mere act of talking severed the tree’s fragile grip.
    Martine was inching her way back to safe ground when the climbers ran up.
    “Where is he?” Red asked briskly. His eyes widened when Martine pointed over the brink.
    The men went smoothly into action. With the ease of professionals accustomed to dealing with life-threatening situations, Jeff constructed a pulley system, using two jutting rocks as anchors, while Red made a harness from the other end of the rope and lowered it down to Ben. As he worked, he talked to Ben in a soothing, almost jokey way, explaining clearly to him what he needed do.
    “Ben, I want you to pretend you’re a spy. You’re surrounded by laser lights which will trigger an alarm if you cross them. The only way for you to escape and get the bad guy is if you put this invisible cloak over your head—only you have to do it very, very slowly, using incredibly tiny movements. Great. You’re doing brilliantly. Now slip the rope under your arms. Pull it a little tighter . . .”
    Without warning, several more roots ripped free from the rock. Ben lurched forward, almost losing his balance. He lay doubled over on the wet, slimy wood, breathing hard.
    Red’s tone never altered. “Oops, don’t worry, we’ve got you. Now I want you to sit up very, very slowly—remember the laser lights, you don’t want to set off the alarm. Okay, hold on to the main rope with both hands and keep as still as you can. Ready, Jeff? Good. Here we go.”
    Just as Ben’s feet lifted clear of the gray trunk, the entire tree detached itself with a cracking noise that sounded like bones breaking. Wood, stone, and moss plummeted into the smoking gorge. All four of them watched the tree shatter and nobody said a word. The thought that Ben could have fallen with it and been crushed by the force of water, impaled on the spear-like rocks, or drowned in the whirlpool far below, was too hideous to contemplate.
    Red whistled through his teeth as he and Jeff hauled Ben up over the edge and onto solid ground. “That was a bit too close for comfort,” he said, “but you’d make one helluva spy!”
    Martine was in such a state that she hardly knew how to react to Ben’s safe return. “That could have been you,” she said, throwing her arms around him. “You could have fallen down there.”
    “But I didn’t,” Ben told her, gently extricating himself. There was a tremor in his voice, but otherwise he seemed remarkably calm. Aside from a few scratches and bruises, he was unhurt. He offered his hand to the climbers. “Thank you so much for your help. I don’t know what we’d have done without you. I’m sorry for causing you so much trouble and for delaying your climb.”
    “No trouble,” Red assured him. “Good thing we were around.”
    Jeff eyed Ben’s soaking clothes. “You need to get those off and get dry as soon as possible. We’ll walk to the campsite with you—you know, to make sure you get back in one piece. The mountain’s not going anywhere.”
    “We’re fine,” Ben and Martine responded in unison.
    “Thanks for offering,” Martine added hastily, in case they seemed ungrateful. “My grandmother’s waiting for us in one of the log cabins down in the valley. Don’t worry, we’ll go straight there. She was planning to light a fire, and she’ll make Ben some rooibos tea or soup and get him warm.”
    But the climbers insisted on taking them to the gates of the campsite before saying their good-byes. “It isn’t that we believe you can’t get there quite safely by yourselves,” Jeff said. “It’s just that Ben has had a terrifying experience, and the combination of shock and cold can be as dangerous as any fall.”
    “Thanks for the coffee and for rescuing Ben,” Martine said when they reached the campsite and the climbers turned to go.
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