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THE swamp had four distinct seasons and within each she had moods as well. Tonight she wore a mantle of purple, all different hues, dark swirls that filled the night sky and lighter lavenders that crept through the cypress trees. The moon illuminated the veils of moss hanging to the water’s edge, turning them a pale, silvery blue. Crimson and blue made up the color purple, and it was evident in the splashes of dark red slashing through the trees to pour into the duckweed-carpeted water below.
Saria Boudreaux smiled as she carefully stepped from her airboat to the blind she’d set up, building it day by day, a little at a time, so as not to disturb the wildlife around her. She’d grown up on the edges of the swamp and there was nowhere she was happier. The blind was set up alongside an owl’s nest and she hoped to get night pictures, a coveted coup that could possibly bring her a great deal more money. More and more, her photography was allowing her an independence from her family’s store that she hadn’t thought possible.
Going to school had been rather difficult—she’d been miserable—until she’d discovered the world of photography. Most of her childhood had been spent running wild in the swamps, fishing, maintaining the crab pots, even helping hunt alligator with her father when her brothers were gone—which had been most of the time. She wasn’t used to authority in any form, and school was too structured, had too many rules. She couldn’t breathe with so many people around her. She had nearly fled into the swamp to avoid the rules when a kind teacher had pushed a camera into her hands and suggested she take some pictures of her beloved swamp.
There was a bit of a moon tonight, so she wouldn’t need the dim light she had used the last few nights to reveal activity in the nest. The babies made eager sounds as an adult approached, and as it descended, Saria tripped the camera’s shutter release. At once there was a burst of light, much like a lightning strike, as she set off the electronic flash. Used to lightning, the birds never seemed to be bothered by the occasional bright flare.
She caught a glimpse of talons and a beak outlined against the night sky as the owl dropped down to the nest, and her heart sang. At night the swamp had a different music to it. The bellow of alligators could literally shake the earth. Movement was all around her, in the air, under her feet, in the water and through the trees. The natural rhythm even changed from daylight to dark. Sometimes, lately, she thought maybe she’d been spending too much time in the swamp. Her night vision seemed vastly improved, so that even without the flash of the camera, she often caught sight of the adult owls returning with their catch.
Flickering light caught her eye. Someone had to be poaching, or night fishing around Fenton’s Marsh. Fenton Lumber Company owned thousands of acres of swamp and leased it to most of the families that she knew. Seven of the families living in the burrow each leased several thousand acres to hunt, trap and fish, making their livings almost entirely in the swamp. Some of the men, like her brothers, worked on the Mississippi to bring in money as well, but their lives centered around the swamp.
Fenton’s Marsh was considered rather sacred and off-limits to her people. She found herself scowling at the thought of anyone poaching there. Jake Fenton, the original owner, was well-respected by those living there. It was hard to gain the trust and respect of anyone living in the swamp, yet all the families had liked the older man and often invited him into their homes. He’d become a regular fixture in the swamps. More than once, several of the alligator hunters had allowed him along, a huge privilege when it was dangerous work and a greenhorn was never welcome. He had given them generous leases and no one would jeopardize their livelihood by biting the hand that fed them. Fenton was dead, but everyone knew that the marsh contained oil, and his great-grandson, Jake Bannaconni, would be developing it one day. Out of respect for Jake Fenton, they left that marsh alone.
The adult owl took off again, the rustle of movement attracting her attention briefly, but she refrained from trying to get any more shots. The lights in the swamp madeer uneasy, and she didn’t want the flashes from her camera to give her away. She shifted position, easing the cramping in her hip, reaching almost unconsciously for her gear. She had meant to spend the night and go home in the early morning light, but the uneasiness was suddenly full-blown fear, and there weren’t a lot of things Saria was afraid of.
She had begun the climb down from her blind when she heard a ragged scream. The sound was human. Male and ugly, harsh—and terrified. The swamp came alive in an instant, birds protesting, frogs and insects going silent, the normally rhythmic world evaporating into chaos. The scream ended abruptly, a ragged, cut-off note of agony.
Chills slid down her spine as she quietly slipped into her boat. Had an alligator managed to kill the person hunting it? As she pushed off into the carpet of duckweed, a screaming roar of absolute fury cut through the swamp. Spitting growls and deep roaring reverberated through the cypress grove. The world around her froze, every creature going still. Even the alligators fell silent. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck stood up. Goose bumps rose. The breath left her lungs in a rush.
A leopard. She knew the legends and myths of leopards in the swamp. The Cajuns who spoke of seeing one of the elusive creatures referred to them as “ghost cats.” A few naturalists said they didn’t exist. Others claimed they were Florida panthers out of the Everglades, looking for new territories. She knew the real truth, and they all had it wrong.
Saria sat very still in her boat, her body trembling, her hand feeling for the reassuring knife at her belt. She’d carried that knife from the time she was ten years old and she’d discovered the truth. Using careful, deliberate movements, she extracted her gun from the case beside her and checked to make certain it was in perfect firing order. She had begun practicing at the age of ten and was a deadly shot—which had made her invaluable when hunting with her father. She could hit that small quarter-sized spot on the back of an alligator’s neck to kill it every single time.