By Marthe Pedersen Snyder
My name is Jennifer and I’m a botanist. I specialize in rare tropical rainforest plants.
I wasn’t scheduled for this trip. After a last-minute cancellation, Stan, the expedition leader who couldn’t be bothered with staffing or administrative matters, told all the backup candidates to draw straws. I thought I was safe, until he announced whoever drew the long straw was going. This should have been my first clue that things were not as they seemed.
Camp excitement included listening to the insects chirping and buzzing, the monkeys hooting and howling, and the afternoon rain drop plop on the banana tree leaves. My early botanical excursions were non-productive, then I discovered an unknown orchid. I couldn’t wait to tell the three other botanists. Even our cook would be excited!
I hurried back to camp, the large leaves and branches slapped at me. My thoughts raced. Could this be the next great medicinal discovery? A vaccine for all viruses? A cure for cancer? Or just another beautiful orchid? Heart pounding, I called out, “I found something!” Our humble camp site consisted of three canvas tents, one for sleeping, one for storage, and one for our field office, a lean to for the field kitchen, and a small corral for our three pack animals. Gasping for breath, “Hey is anyone here?” Silence. The camp was empty. Our field office ransacked.
Huge raindrops pelted my skin. A fresh path lined with broken branches led away from camp. The afternoon rains would obliterate most of the trail; if I was to find my colleagues, I had to move quickly. I shoved a rope, a large knife, two canteens, matches, a jacket, flashlight, and some food in my rucksack and rushed down the trail before it vanished.
I almost tripped over Charlie, our cook, who was propped against a tree. He was badly injured with bruises to his chest, a black eye, and swollen lip. A bone stuck out of his right thigh. Between labored breaths, he told me what happened.
“The camp was attacked by another expedition group and some locals. They dumped the stew I made for lunch. I tried to fight them off.” Charlie wheezed, holding his ribs. “The locals took our team. The scientists ransacked the tents and took some of our field notes, looking for the treasure.”
“What treasure?” I asked.
“The reason for this expedition. We’re in competition with two other groups to find it first. Apparently, the others aren’t going to play fair.”
“What’s this treasure? Why don’t I know about it?”
“I thought you knew. You were added late. I guess they didn’t tell you. You’re the only botanist here, recruited to divert suspicion from our real goal. Find them. Save them.”
Those were Charlie’s last words. I closed his eyes, emptied his pockets, and headed off into the jungle. I hated to leave Charlie alone in the jungle. The others didn’t have a chance without me.
The trail was easy to follow. I did my best to be quiet, despite stepping on twigs, falling over tree roots, and swearing. I stumbled upon a clearing bustling with activity. A local village, with a rival expeditionary campsite on the outskirts. I crouched down, knees bloody, startled at every noise.
The expedition camp was nestled at the edge of the woods in full view of the village center. I climbed a tall tree from which to observe. I noted the camp’s layout and routine and formulated a plan.
Day turned to night. The new moon gave me enough cover. I snuck into the campsite, bumping into tent posts and stakes, cursing under my breath, and into the captive’s tent. I told them to keep quiet or risk being caught. Their ropes were damp and resisted my knife. With effort, I freed my team, told them to “shush”, and led them away.
We fled, on foot, north to the river. The combination of the lush jungle growth and darkness slowed our progress.
We reached the river shortly after dawn. Even though every muscle ached, fear of capture kept us going. The river was 150 feet wide with a 40 foot wide beach on our side and a mountain on the other. Up- and down-stream the beach area became narrow to non-existent. Larry, our guide, spotted an inflatable raft on the beach. Perhaps another expedition left it there. Thankful for transportation we slipped the raft into the river.
The tat-tat-tat of an AK47 sounded from the forest. Bullets landed in the sand around us. We dove into the raft and shoved off into the fast-moving water. Bullets hit the water around the raft. We cowered holding on to anything we could. The water churned. Rocks were more prominent. We clung to the raft for dear life. We shot the rapids with only the current to guide us; bumped a few rocks and almost capsized.
From calmer waters we saw a small shack on the mountain side of the river. We used our hands and paddled to shore. My muscles ached; the warm water felt good as it flowed between my fingers and around my arms. Dry land again! I hesitated at the shack’s door, then knocked.
“What do you want?” a voice bellowed.
“A place to rest before heading on,” I said.
“Where are you headed?”
“Home. I’ve heard tales of tunnels through the mountains. Are they close?” Stan asked.
The man behind the door thought for a while.
“Do you have the orchid?”
How did he know about the orchid? I had it in my pocket but wasn’t going to surrender it.
“No? Most unfortunate.” He paused before asking, “Do you have the straw?”
“I have this straw.” It was the one I took from Charlie’s pockets after he died.
“Yes. Give it to me.” He turned it over in his hands, admired its perfect beauty. “Ah, the elusive plastic bendy straw. You all may enter. Take a lantern and be on your way.”