Gold on The Black Cat Trail

​A short story by Pat Wagner

    I wonder what's in this old wooden chest? Pamela lifted the lid and sorted through scrapbooks in the attic of her deceased parents' home in Cairns, Australia. 


​     She took every item out and noticed a small rip in the lining near the bottom. When Pamela touched it, she heard paper rustling. She stuck her hand in the tear and pulled out an envelope turned brown with age. She grasped an ancient letter by its corner and slid it out of the envelope. Out tumbled three gold nuggets—each one as big as the end of her thumb.


     August 30, 1942

Dear Helen,
    How are you, my darling bride?  I’m OK so far, although the fighting is fierce here in Papua New Guinea. The Japanese are in control of Salamaua, and the Australians are trying to keep them from taking more territory. Us GI's are helping the Aussies chase them back to Japan.
    I discovered something spectacular this afternoon! While digging a foxhole, I uncovered part of an old stream bed. When I checked it out, I found three gold nuggets. I hid them in my pocket and covered the old stream bed up with dirt.
    I found the nuggets along the Black Cat Trail in a clearing by an abandoned village about eighteen miles northeast of Wau airport. The fighting has been so violent—the locals fled. 
   Before I finished digging my foxhole, Japanese soldiers burst from the jungle—blasting us with their guns. We turned them back with overwhelming fire power, but three of my buddies died.
    Don't worry about me. A piece of shrapnel hit my leg, but it will heal.
    In the middle of this awful war I'm sure glad Christ is my Savior and I don't have to fear death.
    I miss you very much. I can't wait to get home to my darling bride.
Love and kisses, 
    Henry

     Gold . . . gold on the Black Cat Trail! Just waiting for me. I want to find it.    

    Pamela's grandfather’s simple trust in the Lord puzzled her. How could he be so sure? She used to believe in God’s existence, but since her mother passed away of cancer two months before, she had doubts.

    She glanced at her watch. It was 3:30 pm. She called her brother, Alex, since his last class at James Cook University ended at 3:00 pm. 

    He had just finished a set of sit-ups in his dorm room when the phone rang. Blond like his sister, he was an athletic young man and played on the school rugby team. His blue eyes lit up while they talked.

    “Hi Alex, You'll never guess what I found.”

    “Come on. Tell me. I don't want to guess.”

    “You know the old chest up in the attic with photos and memorabilia in it?”

    “Yes”

    Pamela told  her brother about her discovery. “I wonder if more nuggets are waiting for us. I'd like to go to Papua New Guinea to see if I can find where Grandpa discovered gold. Since I'm a geologist, I should be able to find the spot.” 

    “I’m sure you could.”

    “Alex, since Dad and Mom died, I question my faith. Why did God allow them both to die?”

    “Sorry, but I don’t know. I miss them so much, but now they are face to face with the Lord in Heaven and I’m happy for them. We’ll be together again soon. Everyone dies—even babies. I'm looking forward to a wonderful reunion with our parents and Grandpa and Grandma too. What a day that will be!” 

    “That’s good for you, but I need to fill my life with something to give me a challenge and purpose—no matter how risky. Will you go with me to Papua New Guinea?” 

    “I'd like to go.  Hunting for gold sure sounds like fun, however, I need to pray about this first.” Alex wanted God's will. He had often rushed ahead of Him before with bad results, and this time he needed to wait on God to find out His mind about the trip. 

    Pamela objected, “Alex, just make up your own mind. I think you're being ridiculous.”

    “If I get peace about going to Papua New Guinea, I'll tell you.”

    “Well, if that's the way you want to be.”

    Later on that week he emailed Pamela and told her he would go. “This semester will be over in two weeks and I'll take time off for a while. We can finance the trip from our inheritance—if it's all right with you.”

    As soon as she read her brother's email, she telephoned him at school. “Hi Alex, your idea of using our money to fund the trip sounds like a wonderful plan. Now we need to find a guide familiar with Papua New Guinea. He’ll tell us what supplies we'll need.” 

    “Tell you what, Pamela, one of my professors traveled there several times and should be able to recommend a guide.”

    The next day Alex stood at the door of Dr. Jeremiah Swartz's office and knocked. 

    A lean towering German with thick glasses greeted him. “Hi Alex, What can I do for you?”

    “Dr. Swartz, my sister and I want to go to Papua New Guinea and we need a guide. You traveled north to the island several times. Can you recommend a dependable one?”

    “Ethan Davis. He flew us three times in his plane and supplied porters for our trip and led us to where we wanted to go. He is reliable and trustworthy.” 

    Dr. Swartz found an extra one of Ethan's business cards in his desk and handed it to him. 

    They shook hands and Alex left. 

    A few days later, Alex and Pamela drove to Ethan's business. Above the door hung a wooden sign—Guided Trips to Papua New Guinea.

    As Alex opened the door for his sister, Ethan looked up from his desk, stood up and greeted them with a cheery “G'day, can I help you?” 

    When Ethan first glanced at the young woman, he couldn't help thinking, “What a beauty!“ Pamela's floral skirt and blouse complemented her blue eyes and long golden hair.

    Alex reached out to shake Ethan's hand. “You have Professor Dr. Jeremiah Swartz' highest recommendation, so we want you to be our guide as we go to Papua New Guinea. Are you available? And when?”

    “Oh, that's Jerry . . . We've gone on many trips together. Where on the island are you heading?”

    Pamela couldn't help noticing Ethan' winsome smile, tan skin, muscular body and strong chin covered with stubble. Dressed in khaki pants and short-sleeve shirt with black boots polished to a high shine, he appeared to be in his late twenties.

    Since no one else was with them in the room, Alex felt more comfortable about sharing their secret. “This information is for you only. Please don't tell anyone. It might be worth your while if you can keep it secret.”

    “I'm good at keeping secrets.”

    Alex continued, “Okay then, We want to take the Black Cat Trail to search for gold. We discovered our grandfather's letter. He fought in World War II with the American forces. He found gold while digging a foxhole along that trail, If you help us find it, you'll share in our discovery. You understand, therefore, why we want no one else to find out. Pamela is a geologist, so she should be able to find gold—if it's there.”

    He didn't tell Ethan his grandfather had found the nuggets in a clearing where an abandoned village had been—about 18 miles northeast of Wau airport. He would let him know later when they arrived at their destination.

    “When do you want to go?” Ethan asked. 

    “In about three weeks. There are fourteen days left in this semester,“ Alex answered. 

    “Pamela, I believe you're familiar with the history of gold in Papua New Guinea.” Ethan said.

    “Yes, people discovered gold in New Guinean pottery in 1852.” 

    Ethan, an amateur prospector, had an extensive knowledge of the history of gold in the world's second largest island after Greenland. “I'm looking forward to this trip. Don't worry. I won't tell anyone else—except our three porters who will go with us.”

    Pamela smiled. “Thanks. I'm so glad you'll be our guide. We can't face the trip on our own since we've never been there.”

    “Well, you have quite a treat awaiting you.”

    “Why?“ 

    “Papua New Guinea is a colorful wonderland. It’s like the Garden of Eden.”

    “I heard the exotic island is gorgeous with razorback mountains, rain forests, reefs, swamps and beaches fringed by palm trees,” Alex said.

    “Where you're going—the Black Cat Trail—is dangerous, I traveled that path twice.”

    “What's it like?” Pamela wondered.

    “Trekkers experience Papua New Guinea in the raw there—including poisonous snakes and dangerous bandits. In the 1920s and 30s prospectors used the trail to find riches from gold in Wau. You'll travel through some of the most amazing scenery in the world, but it is rugged. Hazardous terrain, jungles infested with leeches and snakes . . . plus treacherous river crossings.”

    “I heard about village and jungle life few people have ever seen. I chose archeology as my major because cultures like this intrigue me,” Alex said. 

    “It also has a tragic history because thousands of Australians and GI's died in World War II.“ Ethan had been sitting down, but now he paced the room while Alex and Pamela listened. “The Black Cat Trail begins at Salamaua and ends at Wau in Morobe province. Be prepared to wade through swamps, climb over fallen trees, and walk on precarious ledges. You'll still find relics—such as live bombs, ammunition, boots and plane wrecks. You'll also find Japanese tunnels and anti-aircraft guns.”    

    “Amazing!” Pamela looked forward to the trip.

    “Forget tackling this trail unless you are fit and experienced at trekking,“ Ethan advised. “It’s 36 miles long. Along the track you'll stay in villages and guest houses. How fit are both of you?”

    “I'm on the rugby team.”

    “I work out almost daily at the gym and go snorkeling a lot,“ she said. 

    “Just hope it won't be too taxing for you.” 

    “I'm sure we're up to it,” Alex reassured him.

    “I'm bringing a rifle on our trek since it can be dangerous, The Australian government, however, is becoming more intent on taking away our guns.”

    “We're aware of that,” Alex said.

    “A few people can still have them. As for guns in Papua New Guinea, the government wants to take them away, so even police can't have them. But now they are legal—at least for a while.” 

    “That's not reasonable.“ Pamela believed police officers should carry guns.

    “A friend of mine in Lae didn't own a gun and regretted it.”

    “Why?” Alex asked.

    “A gang tried to break into her house by first cutting the fence and luring the guard dogs off. Iron bars covered the windows and protected them. Although the gang fired forty-seven shots into the house, no one got hurt.”

    “That’s good,” Alex said.

    “Now as far as your health goes, I urge you to take anti-malaria tablets. You also need to protect yourselves from leeches because the trail ahead swarms with them.” 

    Pamela gasped. “Yuck!” 

    “So don't forget to wear the leech socks I'm providing. Also buy a small bag of raw tobacco leaves from the market, soak it with water and put the solution into a spray bottle to carry with you. Apply to your clothes and pants. This will help slow them down.”

    Pamela squirmed in her chair. “Leeches are disgusting!”

    “Put salt on your hands and any exposed area. Pour it and water into another spray bottle. Saturate with salt water any leeches sucking your blood, but don't pull the leech off as this will make you bleed more and it will be hard to stop the bleeding. Tuck your shirts into your pants to prevent them from crawling up to warm spots on your bodies, but you don't have to wear long sleeves.”

    “I'm glad.” Pamela wanted to wear short sleeves in the heat.

    “Don't lean on anything in the rain forest. If you need to rest, do so in direct sunlight. You won't find leeches in hot dry places. You'll find brown leeches on the ground and tiger leaches on tree leaves. Tiger leeches' bites hurt more and can leave scars.”

    “Sounds awful.“ Alex wanted to avoid leeches at all costs.

    “You can purchase the supplies you'll need here or in Lae. Another option is to buy or rent them from me.” 

    He handed them a list of items.

    “I use three porters who will come with us. We protect our Papua New Guinea porters because I wouldn't even be in business without them. Thomas, Petrus and Justin are well-trained. They are also kind and thoughtful.”

    “Looking forward to meeting them,” Pamela said.

    “The safety and well-being of clients is their chief concern. And they'll go above and beyond their duty. They even may become some of your best friends. I only allow them to carry twenty KG's, which is forty pounds. I want them to stay safe and healthy for as long as possible.”

    “Of course,” Alex said.

    “We give them a generous salary, but they work hard for it. And you wouldn't even be able to go on the Black Cat Trail without them. These men all have first aid certificates. The porters will also haul prospecting tools. Petrus will carry a ukulele and at night we enjoy singing after dinner.”

    Pamela's excitement grew about the upcoming trip. She wanted to get to know Ethan better.

    “We stop at times for prayer and Bible reading because we're Christians.”

    “What a blessing!” Alex liked the idea.

    Oh no, not another religious fanatic. Too bad because Ethan is so appealing. 


    Ethan asked them to return to his office after three weeks on Tuesday morning at 9:00 am with their backpacks filled and ready to go.

    Twenty-one days passed by in a blur. Alex finished up his course work at the university and they packed their backpacks with clothes and personal items.

    Alex and Pamela arrived at Ethan's office Tuesday morning at 9:00 am sharp. Ethan drove them to the airport in Cairns in his Jeep.

    When they arrived at the airport, he checked out his Cessna 172 Skyhawk—a four seat, single-engine, high wing, blue and white fixed-wing aircraft. It sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. Ethan kept it well-maintained and immaculate because his business depended on it. 

    First, they would fly to Port Moresby to refuel before the next step of their journey—Lae.

    Alex got in the back and Ethan helped Pamela into the passenger seat in the front. When Ethan placed his hand on her arm, she involuntarily shivered.

    Then Ethan walked around to his side of the plane and climbed in. “Fasten your seat belts please.”

    This is kind of scary. It had been several years since they first traveled to Australia from Los Angeles—in huge jet planes! This Cessna 172 seemed so tiny in comparison.

    Ethan turned on the engine and the plane rolled down the runway—picking up speed as it went. The plane lifted off the ground and they rose into the sky. After a while, Pamela gazed out the window and she could see Cairns spread out below her. She stared at the great barrier reef where she loved to snorkel. 

    It was a long flight—a little over four hours to Port Moresby. Below her stretched what appeared to be an endless sea. Layers of clouds billowed over the azure water creating an abstract blue and white masterpiece. As they approached Port Moresby, she viewed the reef again.

    When they landed, Pamela was glad to get out and stretch her legs. She and her brother had eaten breakfast at 8 o'clock that morning. Now it was time for a late lunch at 1:30 pm. They ate Chinese food at a restaurant near the ocean. 

    “We'll fly to Lae in two hours—time for a walk around the city.”  

    Azure sea and dusty hills squeezed Port Moresby between them. Modern office buildings and a marina full of yachts contrasted with shanty towns that had no electricity or running water. Village locals tried to sell their wares wherever they could. A huge difference existed between the wealthy and the poor. But the trekkers enjoyed meeting friendly people, and a lovely green park-like area in the corner of Port Moresby appealed to them.

    Three hours after landing in Port Moresby at 4:30 pm, Ethan, Alex and Pamela boarded the plane again headed for Lae—one hundred and eighty-eight miles across Papua New Guinea.

    This time, instead of a world of blue and white from sky, sea and clouds, Pamela and Alex flew over miles and miles of terrain that resembled fresh broccoli. The landscape undulated from valleys to hills. 

    “The little thatched huts on top of each mountain could represent a different language group from nearby mountains. There are over eight hundred and fifty languages in Papua New Guinea.”

    The flight took a little over an hour and a half from Port Moresby to Lae.  Before landing they hit turbulence. The plane bounced up and down and shook sideways. 

    “Uh oh,” Pamela croaked, “I might lose my lunch.” 

    Ethan handed her a white plastic bucket. “Here, use this if you need to.”

    When they landed, the plane wobbled and swerved. “Sorry about the rough landing.” 

    “That was . . . um . . . kind of scary,” she muttered.

    After purchasing supplies, Ethan located his porters and introduced the short muscular Papuan men. Pamela had never seen such radiant smiles on anyone's face before. 

    “These men are kind, brave and intelligent. They are not animists—who worship trees and rocks like their forefathers—but they are all Christians. Thomas, Petrus, and Justin are trustworthy and will give their lives to protect you—if needed. Wycliffe Bible translators led them to the Lord.”

    “Praise God!” 

    Oh no! More fanatics!

    “We'll stay overnight here in Lae at a friend of mine's home. Tomorrow morning—Wednesday—we'll go to Salamaua. It’s about an hour's journey on a banana boat.“

    “What's a banana boat?”  Pamela wondered.

    “You'll find out tomorrow.” 

    The next morning after breakfast, Pamela, Alex, Ethan and the porters climbed into a fiberglass boat with a small engine. Fourteen people crowded together in the small boat—including the six travelers. Two older women, a man with his two sons. two younger men fishing in the back of the boat,  and the captain occupied the boat. 

    The captain stopped two times at tiny villages to let people off before arriving at Salamaua. Then he dropped the trekkers off at a guesthouse. A large older man, named Joe, greeted them. He gave them a brief history lesson about the role of Salamaua during World War II. “It became the Japanese stronghold and many fierce battles raged as American and Australian troops struggled against the enemy. Reminders of that grim time are old docks, and the remains of bombs and machine guns entangled by jungle plants.” 

    At night vermilion swatches of color contrasted by muted bands of gray played across the sky. The sea below echoed the flaming sunset above it.

    Rain pounding above the straw roof woke them up the next morning. It was Thursday. They would stay another night, so they had the day ahead of them to enjoy.

    For breakfast they each had a bowl of rice, noodles, greens, and sausages. 

    After they ate, Alex said, “A perfect day to go snorkeling!” 

    Before he walked to the beach with his snorkeling gear, the three of them visited a hill held by the Japanese during World War II.

    Afterwards Alex and the porters traveled in separate directions. Pamela's brother snorkeled while the porters visited friends in town.

    Ethan and Pamela sat down outside the guest house with their soft drinks on the table beside them.

    Pamela was glad to spend time alone with Ethan. 

    He leaned forward. “Mind if I ask you a personal question?” 

    “Go ahead.” 

    “You are a lovely young woman, but you seem sad. Am I right?” 

    “I'm still grieving because my mother died a few months ago of cancer and two years before that a fatal car crash  killed my father.” 

    “Losing parents must be so hard. Do you know if they had prepared for eternity?” 

    “I'm not sure what you mean.” 

    “Did they believe in Jesus?” 

    Oh no! Why do we need to discuss religion? 

    “My father was the pastor of a small church in Cairns. My parents were American, but my father decided after visiting Australia to accept a call to be the pastor. When my grandparents died, they left my parents enough money to buy a large home in Cairns. Well, after my parents both died, I was no longer sure about my faith. It sure doesn't seem fair to be an orphan!” 

    Ethan was silent for a moment. 

    They sat for a while gazing out at the clear turquoise water before them.

    “What about your brother, Alex, is he a Christian?”

    Why does he keep pestering me about religion? “Yes, he shares our parents' faith.” 

    Ethan was glad. He had seen a radiance in his countenance that spoke of deep inner joy. 

    “I can't help envying Alex's inner peace, however, and the conviction he'll spend eternity with our parents and grandparents some day in Heaven. I have no such assurance.” Pamela was becoming uncomfortable with the direction their conversation was going. She changed the subject. “Do you like to snorkel?”

    “I snorkel some.”

    Pamela loved snorkeling in the great barrier reef not far from their home in Cairns. Through the water she had seen sunlight dappling over the extraordinary shapes of the brain coral, the antler corral, the sea ferns and anemones. Around her swam fish in all colors of the rainbow. She never learned the names of a lot of them, but watching the kaleidoscope of shape and movement was thrilling.

    Then Ethan asked, “Where did you go to school, Pamela?”

    “Last year I graduated from James Cook University in Cairns near home. I chose this college when I learned of their global stature. It impressed me that their graduates hold top-level positions around Australia and the world.” 

    “I attended the University of Queensland.”

    “What did you study?”

    “I wanted to be a history high school teacher, but I didn't like teaching because you have to function like a policeman to keep the kids from taking over. It can be like Daniel in the lions' den. I prefer being a guide.” 

    “Sounds like more fun than being a teacher. To change the subject—I find it interesting that criminals settled Australia.”

    “My ancestor was a criminal from England banished to Australia.” He didn't know whether to celebrate his genealogy or to be ashamed of it because he joined 20% of his countrymen with a similar background.

    “Please tell me more.” Pamela insisted.

    “Well, between 1788 and 1868 England shipped around 162,000 criminals to this wild continent—my Davis ancestor too.”

    “Go on.”

    “Until 1782, Britain transported English convicts to America. But after 1783 the American war of Independence ended and the new independent country wouldn't accept any more prisoners. So England transported them to New South Wales instead.”

    “How intriguing.”

    “Life in Britain was hard. Because of new machines, people lost their jobs. They moved to the cities in search of work. But the cities became overcrowded, and many people couldn't find work. Stealing was their main means of survival—even though it was wrong.”

    “I'm sure glad my Davis ancestor was not a murderer, because England executed them . . . and I wouldn't exist.” 

    Pamela gazed into Ethan's dark brown eyes. “I'm also glad he wasn't a murderer.”

    Ethan's heart beat faster and he was quiet for a moment. “Do you have a favorite book, Pamela?”

    “It might surprise you, but I love The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. I admire her for saving the lives of many Jews during World War II in Holland.”

    “Yes, I read it too. Such an inspiration.”

    “What's your favorite book, Ethan?”

    “The Bible. My second favorite is Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan—a metaphor of the Christian life.”

    Here we go—back to religion again. “My parents encouraged Alex and me to read it. They told us it was the most popular book beside the Bible for many years. My brother read it, but I never did.”

    “John Bunyan chose jail time in England rather than to stop preaching without a license—which he couldn't get as an uneducated kitchen pot repairer. As I journey on these treks, I keep remembering scenes from Pilgrim's Progress. I tell the story to my porters and they love it. Would you like me to share a summary of the book?”

    Although Pamela didn't want to listen, to impress him she lied.  “I would like that.”

    “All right then,” Ethan began, “John Bunyan wrote he dreamed while in jail about a man named Christian who held a book in his hand. Several huge sacks clung to his back. He faced away from his house and as he read, he kept crying and trembling. He cried out in his agony, 'What shall I do to be saved?'”

    Pamela thought the story so far was stupid, but she chose to be polite. “Go on, What happened next?”

    “He lived in the City of Destruction. The book warned his city would be destroyed by fire and he and his whole family would perish.”

    “How awful!” But she thought—How absurd!

    “Pamela, Christian was afraid because of the coming judgment that the book talked about. And he believed it. He tried to talk to his family about his fear, but they thought he was going crazy. His wife hoped sleep would settle his brains, but it didn't make him any better. He was much worse in the morning—much worse.” Ethan sipped his Dr. Pepper.

    “Please go on.” But she sympathized with Christian's wife.

    “Christian continued talking about what he found in the book, and his family became impatient with him. He spent time by himself in the fields and continued reading, but his burden kept getting even bigger. Christian read about a glorious Celestial City and wanted to go there but didn't know how. In the distance he saw a man coming toward him. Christian had been crying and the man inquired, 'Why are you weeping?' His name was Evangelist. 'I don't know what to do,’ Christian answered. ‘My city is going to be destroyed!’”

    “Then Evangelist pointed in the distance and asked, 'Do you see the wicket-gate?' 

    ‘No,’ Christian replied. 

    'Well, can you see a shining light?' 

    “Christian peered far into the distance where the man had showed and after a while replied,  'Yes, I think I do.'”

    “Evangelist told him to keep his eyes on that light and keep walking until you reach the gate. 'Knock and someone will tell you what to do.'”

    Just then Ethan and Pamela saw Alex. “Here comes your brother. If you like, I'll share more of Pilgrim's Progress later.”

    “I'm eager to hear more when we get the opportunity,” she lied.

    “Wow . . . I had a fantastic time! I swam about six hundred feet from shore and headed for a buoy. It marked a World War II sunken Japanese military boat. It has become a coral reef surrounded by spectacular fish.”

    “How wonderful, Alex.” Pamela loved her little brother.

    “Go on, mate, tell us more.”

    “I swam around the reef for about two hours. It teamed with life. Once I dunked my head under water, it was like entering a magnificent new world full of color and beauty. Indescribable. Oh, I experienced the great barrier reef near Cairns, but this was even more spectacular.”

    “Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Alex.” Pamela was glad he was so healthy now because frequent illnesses made him suffer as a little boy. 

    They stayed in the guest house another night and the next morning after breakfast, Pamela, Alex, Ethan and the porters continued on their way to the Black Cat Trail. It was Friday morning. They first visited Laugui—a lovely village on a white sand isthmus with blue water on each side.

    “Oh, Alex and Ethan, it is so quiet and peaceful here with no roads and the only sound I hear is children playing.”

    “I hear wind in coconut palms,” Ethan said.

    “Wow! Gorgeous pink and purple bougainvillea . . . how beautiful!” Pamela loved Laugui.

    They traveled on coconut-lined avenues. They walked past the cemetery and trudged through thick mud further inland.  

    Then they crossed the flooded Francisco River. The swift current was difficult to walk across and almost swept Pamela away, but Thomas grabbed her arm and steadied her.

    They passed gardens, swamps, and creeks—and then sat down to rest on the river bank.

    For a morning snack they ate packaged Lae biscuits and canned meat with palm loaves.

    Upstream. they passed through Komiatum village and at 3:00 pm they reached the juncture of the Francisco and Tambu Rivers. The trail became difficult to slog through and they walked in a single file. Pamela, Alex, Ethan and the three porters struggled up a steep embankment. 

    Suddenly Ethan shouted from behind her, “Stop, Pamela! Turn around and walk back to me as fast as you can!” 

    A huge snake on her left—just a few feet away—lurked, ready to attack. It raised up and lashed out at Pamela—missing her hand by inches before Ethan could shoot the reptile’s head. 

    It was a thick-bodied snake with grayish head and cream-colored body, coiled around a low clinging bush on Pamela's left side. 

    Ethan peered closer at it. “A New Guinea death adder—the biggest one I’ve ever seen! I encountered several of these snakes on these treks, They eat lizards, rodents, frogs and other reptiles. The snakes are shy but can be aggressive when someone provokes them. They bite down hard and refuse to let go of their victims. Thank God, it didn't bite you!” 

    Pamela lost control of herself and sobbed. She had come within inches of death . . . and then what? Danger was so close. She slumped forward, almost fell on the ground, but steadied herself and stood up again.

    “Good on ya, Pamela. You're a determined woman,” 

    After the encounter with the snake, the group continued towards Mount Tambu where they trudged through thick foliage.

    Pamela had the strange sensation hostile eyes from the jungle watched her.

    From time to time they passed through shady bamboo groves. Through them they viewed panoramic views of the valley and sea.

    “Would you look at that!” Ethan said. “Behold the Master Designer's creation! An accident or big bang could never have made that. What a majestic scene!”

    “You're right,“ affirmed Alex. “What a magnificent Creator God!“    

    Thomas, Justin and Petrus agreed.

    How could they be so sure? 

    The trekkers gazed at huge craters made from bombs dropped during World War II. Pamela imagined how fierce the battle had raged.

    They kept climbing up Mountain Tambu and from time to time glanced back at the grand panorama before them.

    Pamela again felt as though someone was peering at her from deep within the jungle.

    Ethan snapped photographs as black cockatoos and hornbills flew across the sky. They also encountered tree kangaroos, wild pigs, cassowaries and all kinds of other wildlife that populated the mountains of Salamaua.

    About 6:00 pm they arrived at the top of Mount Tambu. Then they hiked until they reached a mountain spring and Ethan reminded them, “Don't forget to put purifier tablets in the water you collect in your cups, so you don't get dysentery.” 

    Then they traveled down to Nukamp, which means new camp. For dinner they ate bananas, rice, canned meat, and drank coffee.

    Afterward, Ethan announced it was time for singing and a Bible lesson. Petrus removed the strap off his shoulder and tuned his ukulele. Then he led the group in singing hymns.

    After singing, Ethan stood and shared a Bible meditation.

    He turned all his attention to Pamela. “I will share my favorite Bible verse—John 3:16. 'For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.' ”

    Pamela knew the verse by heart, but so far it meant nothing to her.

    “I can't argue anyone into believing in Christ because somebody else will be able to talk you out of faith in Him. When someone is born again—it is a miracle of divine grace. The good Shepherd rescues His sheep.”

    The thought startled her.

    “We can meet the risen Jesus Christ in a personal encounter. If you want the God to forgive you and give you eternal life, tell Him you're sorry for the wrong things you've done—like running your own life instead of letting Him run it. Turn toward Jesus instead of away from Him.”

    Pamela realized she preferred doing what she wanted to do. She wanted to walk away from the others but didn't.

    Ethan continued. “The Bible says, 'Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

    Pamela felt a strange sense of foreboding and wanted to leave but couldn’t. Outside the safety of her group lurked hidden danger.

    “But don't expect the Christian life to be an easy one because it is not. Paul taught it is through much tribulation we enter the kingdom of God.”

    Pamela was sick of hearing about a deity—if He existed—that let her parents die.

    After the singing and Bible lesson, they pulled out their sleeping bags and went to sleep, exhausted by the day's trek. 

    Pamela kept thinking about how unfair it was that she lost both of her parents.

    On Saturday morning after breakfast, they descended to Guise Creek and had to cross still more creeks and river crossings before arriving at Mabo. 

    From there it was precarious as they inched their way along steep cliff faces. The flooded Bitol river raged beneath them. 

    They found an easier crossing farther upstream and waded through another difficult river. Again Pamela almost lost her footing, but this time Alex kept her from being swept away.

    Then they climbed up a steep ascent to Gaudagasul. The village reminded them of a fortress. Few visitors came there and the locals welcomed the trekkers and stuffed them with delicious food—bananas, kaukau (baked sweet potatoes), taro roots and leaves, tapioca, green leaves from the choko plant, rice and tuna. 

    Ethan encouraged the villagers to build guesthouses for trekkers that might come their way on the Black Cat Trail.

    All day Sunday they stayed at the fortress village to rest. They gathered for worship and Ethan preached. Pamela asked Ethan to tell her more of the story of Pilgrim's Progress since she was curious about what happened to Christian.

    “Where did I stop? I forgot.” 

    Pamela remembered. “Where Evangelist directed Christian to keep his eyes on the light and follow it.“

    “We glad you tell story of Pilgrim's Progress again. We love it.” Justin was happy to spend Sunday morning listening to the beautiful tale again. 

    “Christian ran toward the light and the wicket-gate, but after going a short distance, his wife and children called for him to return. But he put his fingers in his ears and kept running. Several neighbors tried to bring him back, but a man named Pliable chose to go with Christian.” 

    “Pliable end up bad,” Thomas said.

    “Right, mate!” Ethan continued, “Pliable was all excited when he heard about the blessings Christian's book promised. But on their way they both slipped and fell into a muddy bog. Disgust filled Pliable as he climbed out of the filth and returned to the City of Destruction. A man named Help pulled Christian out of the mud.” 

    “That right,” Petrus said. “God helps me too.”

    “A man named Mr. Worldly Wiseman met Christian and advised him against seeking the wicket-gate. He claimed there was a better way. Mr. Worldly Wiseman sent him up a different path to certain ruin—Mt. Sinai, but Evangelist encountered Christian again and sent him again to the right path.”

    Pamela asked, “What does that mean?”

    “No one can be saved by keeping the Law. It's impossible!“ Ethan answered. “Salvation is the gift of God.”

    “Amen,” Petrus shouted. 

    “Christian kept walking until he at last saw the wicket gate, but it was closed. Just then an arrow swished past his ear and plunged into the door. Christian noticed a huge castle on a nearby hill with warriors shooting arrows at him. In a panic he banged on the door and a voice asked,  'Who’s there?'  ‘A poor weary traveler from the City of Destruction seeking to find the Celestial City.’ The door opened, and a man pulled him inside.”

    “Whew, that was a close one,” Pamela exclaimed.

    “Next he traveled to Interpreter's house where he showed Christian wonderful things and warned about the dangers of the path ahead of him.”

    “Life assaults us with many trials,” Alex said.

    “Christian continued on the narrow road with the burden on his back. Two walls on either side of the path surrounded him. He passed an open tomb at the foot of the hill and beyond that there was a wooden cross. As the shadow of the cross fell across him, the burden rolled off his back and disappeared into the mouth of the open tomb!”

    “All of a sudden, three shining angels appeared! One of them proclaimed, 'Your sins are forgiven.' They took off his filthy clothes and helped him put on bright new garments. Another angel handed him a parchment scroll and told him to guard it with his life and not surrender it until he reached the Celestial City.”

    “I know what that means,“ Thomas jumped up and raised his hands to the sky. “Christian got saved. Me got saved too—five years ago.” His brown face glowed with joy.

    “That's enough of the story for now. I plan to tell more of it later.” 

    On Monday morning they left Gaudagasul and forged through thick rain forest. The trail became steep and more precarious. 

    Pamela couldn't shake the feeling strangers were watching her. Who could be following me?

    As she trudged along the muddy trail, she kept slipping. “Ouch! My heavy backpack is making me stagger. I almost fell and had to grab stinging nettles to steady myself.”

    “Here let me carry some of that for you,” Ethan volunteered.

    They kept hearing the calls of Birds of Paradise which echoed through the forest canopy.

    Alex stopped and cried out in pain. “Something just bit me—it hurts!”

    When they checked, they discovered a tiger leech sucking his blood. “Oh no,” he groaned. “I forgot to wear my leech socks today.”

    “Apply the salt mixture,” Ethan advised.

    Alex sprayed the leech and it let go.

    From then on they saw a lot of leeches. They could smell trekkers and somehow got up on them sucking until they became fat with their blood. Shoes and ordinary socks wouldn't stop them. 

    Pamela pointed at her feet. “Thanks, Ethan, for providing these special socks—they work well.”

    She still couldn't shake the sense she was being stared at from the dark rain forest.

    They kept plodding on until they came to a clearing in the jungle. There in front of them lay scattered remains of long-abandoned huts and fragments of pottery—the witness of villagers fleeing from danger during World War II. 

    Pamela gasped. “This must be where Grandpa found gold!”

     “Ethan, I'm sure from Grandpa's letter this is the place he found gold,“ Alex said.

    Pamela had walked alone by herself and was about thirty feet from the others. She stooped down at the edge of the village to examine some of the clay pieces.

    But unknown to the travelers, dark men—painted beyond recognition—had been stalking them. Cruel eyes stared at Pamela . . . cruel lustful eyes . . . from the dense jungle. 

    A whizzing sound startled Ethan—just above his head. Then he heard a loud “t...h...w...a...c...k “. . . just above and behind him. He spun on his feet—and to his horror, a spear quivered in the palm trunk just inches from where he had been standing. 

    Six screaming bandits erupted from the jungle with machetes and spears and rushed into the clearing.

    A dark man with a crazed gleam in his eyes grabbed Pamela's left arm with both of his powerful hands.

    Ethan charged after them and grabbed the Papuan's arm to yank him away from Pamela, but the Papuan held on to Pamela with one hand and kicked Ethan in the stomach. He threw Ethan to the ground all the while keeping a firm grasp on Pamela. Ethan still had his rifle in his hand but didn't want to shoot unless it was necessary.

    “No . . . no! Let go of me! Leave me alone!” Pamela begged.    

    The Papuan dragged her kicking and screaming out of the clearing into the dense jungle.

    “Let me go! Please let me go!”

    “No, you be my woman.“ 

    As she pleaded with her captor, he dragged her farther and farther into the steaming forest. The other bandits ran behind them. 

    Grasping his rifle, Ethan got up and bolted after them.

    Thomas, Alex and Petrus pursued Pamela and her kidnapper through the dense foliage. Once Thomas' foot got tangled in a low spreading vine and he fell flat on his face—but he pushed himself up again. 

    He strained with all his strength to outrun the Papuan bandit and was the first one to catch up with him. Thomas grabbed the muscular Papuan's arms and wrenched them off Pamela. “You no hurt Missy Pamela!”

    “You no keep me from my woman,” the bandit glowered. “She mine!” 

    While the two men locked in ferocious combat, Pamela freed herself from the Papuan's grip and raced back to the clearing.

    One of the other bandits handed a machete to Pamela's tormenter. Thomas grabbed his right wrist and tried to rip the machete from his hand, but the vicious thief lifted it high and struck Thomas a blow to the head before Ethan could aim and shoot.

    With the crack of Ethan's rifle, the robber crumpled to the ground. Since their leader was dead, the other bandits ran off. 

    Thomas slumped to the jungle floor—blood flowing from the mortal machete wound. He groaned and raised his eyes to heaven. “Dear Father, me forgive him.” He focused his eyes on his companions and whispered. “Dear friends, me go to Jesus now. He my Savior.” 

    His gazed up at Pamela with his last gasp of breath and pleaded, “Pamela, you believe in Jesus. If not . . . you go to burning place of fire.”

    She reached out and touched Thomas' hand. “Dear Thomas, please don't leave us.“

    “I must go to my home above.“ He stared at something glorious he seemed to see that they couldn't. “Look! . . . me . . . see . . . beautiful . . . glowing . . . light . . . It Celestial City!” His face lit up with heavenly light. Then he closed his eyes and a peaceful smile remained on his face.

    Ethan whispered, “Goodbye . . . farewell . . . dear brother . . . I'll . . . join . . . you . . . in the morning.“ Ethan couldn't contain his grief and he sobbed in gut-wrenching sorrow.

    Tears trickled down all their faces.

    “Me sorry true for us, but Thomas now in Heaven.” Petrus said.

    Justin spoke through his tears. “Me go be with Thomas when life over.”

    Pamela was in shock from the gruesome ordeal. “Oh Ethan,“ Pamela sobbed and sobbed. “It's all my fault. If I hadn't been greedy for gold, Thomas would still be alive.”

    Alex turned to his sister. “Thomas protected you and gave his life for you. The Bible says, 'Greater love has no man than this—that a man give his life for his friends.'“

    They dug two graves—one for Thomas and another for the bandit leader. 

    “When we get back to Lae, I'll tell Thomas' wife and family what happened,“ Ethan said. “If they want, they can bring his body back and bury him in Lae.” 

    After they buried the thief, they wrapped Thomas' body in a tarp and lowered him into the grave. Petrus made a wooden marker from a nearby tree limb and put it over his grave. “Thomas Makira—true disciple of Jesus. He gave his life to save another.”

    Ethan gave a short funeral message over the finished grave.

    Pamela became aware in those sacred moments that not only had Thomas died for her, but in a far greater way, Jesus had given His life for her. 

    Pamela's spiritual eyes opened.  Please forgive me for doubting You. Thank You for forgiving my sins and sending your Son to die and rise again from the dead for me.

    Incredible peace enveloped her.

    “We've got to get out of here!” Ethan warned. The bandits may come back at any moment and who knows what will happen. 

    We can't go back the way we came because we'll probably run into  them—that’s where they ran. We’ll have to return to Australia and give up the search for gold for now,” Ethan announced. “We need to walk to Wau to contact a pilot to fly us back to Lae.”    

    It took two days to reach Wau—eighteen miles away, and Ethan was able to secure a flight back to Lae. During this time he finished telling the story of Pilgrim’s Progress to Justin, Petrus, Pamela and Alex. He told how Christian, who was renamed Pilgrim, overcame many dangerous trials and entered the Celestial City. He shared how Christian’s family also became pilgrim’s and were reunited with him forever.

    After their safe flight back from Lae, they returned to Ethan's headquarters. From there he helped them take their things back to their home. Alex had moved back to his parents’ house (which was now his and Pamela’s) since he was not attending school at the time.

    Alex opened the door for her and invited Ethan to come in. Before they all sat down in the living room, Alex put his arm on Ethan’s shoulder. “It's my fault too that Thomas died . . .  because I also wanted to search for gold. Look, I'm volunteering to be your porter. You can train me and I'll work for you.”

    “But Alex,” Ethan replied. “You need to finish school.”

    “No, I made up my mind. I'm going to help you until you can train another porter—whether you pay me or not. You see, our parents left us an inheritance from our grandparents. So I don’t have to be that concerned about money. Also, I can study online to help get a degree.”

    Then Ethan had an idea. “I’ve been wanting to expand my operation as a guide. Do you want to be partners?”

    “Lord willing, I would like that a lot,” Alex responded.  “But let’s talk about it later. Please excuse me—I’m exhausted. I'm going to go to my bedroom upstairs and rest.”

    Pamela and Ethan sat down on the sofa while Alex trudged wearily upstairs.

    Ethan was increasingly aware of his deep feelings for Pamela.   As a Christian, he would not date anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus. He took the Bible seriously and it commanded, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”

    After a few minutes Ethan gently took her hand in his and asked, “Pamela, would you like to go out to dinner tonight—just the two of us?”     

     “Oh Ethan, I would love to. Please wait for me to change clothes and leave a note for Alex about where we're going.”

    After putting on a pretty blue dress, silver necklace and high heels, she returned to the living room.     

    “I'm still grief-stricken over dear Thomas’ death,“ she sighed. “Just think of it. He died protecting me!”

    “Thomas is with the Lord now.” Ethan gently reassured her. 

    “I know . . .”

    “We’ll spend eternity with him someday in the future.“ Ethan added.

    “That's so true and wonderful.”

     Ethan asked her, “What about your grandfather's gold?”

    “I’m disappointed, of course, we had to abandon searching for it when we were so close. 

    “We can search for gold again later,” Ethan responded.

    “You and Alex will have to go without me. I never want to see that trail again. But I really don’t feel that bad.” 

    “Why?”

    ”One of the reasons is because I met you.”

    “I feel the same. I care deeply for you. In fact . . .  I love you.” 

    She smiled and looked deeply into his eyes. “I love you too, Ethan.”

    He tenderly squeezed her hand.     

    “As rough as it was,” Pamela shared. “I discovered something far more precious than gold on the Black Cat Trail . . .”

    “What was that, Honey?”

    “I found new life in Christ.”