Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 11

Blane had quickly given up on trying to find Larkin Bellamy’s trail in the dark the night before. He didn’t have anything like night vision to help him, and any obvious clues that she might have left had been destroyed or confused by the soldiers’ movements in the same general direction. Still, he hadn’t wanted to take any chances with getting discovered himself, so he climbed a tall sugar apple tree and settled in for the night.

At first light he woke and scanned the skyline for any clues. A curl of smoke in the distance told him that the soldiers’ encampment was about a mile south of him, and they were probably still lazily trying to sleep in a little. He climbed down and returned to the brush bordering the governor’s house where he knew that Larkin had begun her escape the previous night. The nearby dirt walkway surrounding the house was full of the footprints of boots scattering in several directions. She’d been wearing sandals, and her prints would be light and small, if traceable at all. Thankfully the horde hadn’t quite entered the forest where she had, and he was able to pick out a very faint trail there, heading west towards the center of the island.

At times a larger man or two had tracked over the path, but it wasn’t too difficult to follow for a seasoned hunter like him. It had been dark when she was fleeing, so the path was a little erratic, but it was also more obvious because she was terrified rather than cautious. Small broken branches and disrupted undergrowth soon led him up to an old derelict road, crumbling from disuse. There the trail stopped, with no evidence of her crossing it and continuing on the opposite side. She had to have taken the road, which was simultaneously smart and obvious. At least she could have followed it relatively easily in the dark.

So did Larkin go north or south? To the north there was decidedly less ground for the exhausted traveler to cover, and the village was that direction as well. A frightened girl would choose it, thinking that help could be found there or that she could somehow convince the pilot to take her back to the US. It was almost certain capture or death at Tholen’s hands to the north, but he couldn’t know whether she realized the true gravity of her situation. The opposite direction had much more wilderness to hide in, but far fewer people to help her. She would have to rely on skills that she probably didn’t have to make a shelter and find food.

Aberland thought back to the image of Larkin’s clumsy attempt at being covert as she struggled to escape with her life several days back, and it helped him draw a few conclusions. 1) She had little to no exposure to survival tactics. 2) She could force herself to react (and survive) in dire situations, overcoming emotion. 3) She had been smart enough to run instead of begging for her life or crying to get her way with the governor. Maybe he wasn’t giving her enough credit. On an instinct, he turned south, eyes peeled for any sign that she’d come that way.

He didn’t have to travel far for confirmation of just that. Flattened wild grasses at the base of a tree off the side of the road and mango rinds told him that she’d spent the night there, and found herself some food after all. He picked up the pace, taking off in a light jog from there in the hopes of closing the gap. By mid-morning he had followed the broken road up the rise to the sloping foothills of Mount Sage, keeping a vigil as he went for any sign that she had deviated from the path. He’d seen none and was beginning to second-guess himself when he heard the faint gurgle of water in the distance. He slowed, carefully searching to see if she had found the water too. She would clearly be in need of it by that point.

The old road wound over a small hill, with rocks and stones of various sizes tumbling down the side and piled at the base. It was a pretty secluded spot. It was near some boulders that he found a few twigs from a low tree she’d disturbed. His pulse quickened; he was on the right track after all. Following a target under those frustrating conditions was difficult, but when you were successful, the adrenaline definitely kicked in. It was the thrill of the hunt. Blane slowed his breathing and his pace, wanting to be as quiet as possible so as to not frighten her away. He wondered if he could somehow improve his appearance, make himself seem more trustworthy. The last thing either of them needed was for her to go screaming through the woods, alerting everyone to their location.

He looked down. He was still wearing his summer guard’s uniform of tan hiking boots, his duty belt, khaki shorts, and a khaki shirt. He sighed. It was like dressing as a Safari Ken doll compared to his former Seal uniform and he despised it. Nonetheless, to Larkin it represented the people who were after her. He took off the khaki shirt, leaving the thin white tank top he had on underneath. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.

Aberland silently eased around the boulders, watching and listening closely as he entered a well-hidden clearing in the woods, with a little pool in the center, and a girl who could be none other than Larkin Bellamy sunbathing in it.

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