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Footprints in Time

Footprints in Time by Petru Popescu
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Jack Conran can't imagine a better way to spend his summer than researching lions with his scientist father in Tanzania. He's thrilled when Dad invites him along on an expedition to the Witch's Pot, a storm-guarded and unexplored crater in the savanna. But when their plane goes down, Jack finds himself injured and alone in a wilderness teeming with hungry predators. Alone, that is, until he meets the mysterious creature who saved his life. Battling lions and the elements, Jack struggles to survive. But if he wants to return to civilization alive, Jack must first learn the fantastic secrets that nature—and his father—have been hiding.

A fast-paced adventure of discovery and survival from New York Times bestselling author Petru Popescu.

HarperCollins; June 2009
256 pages; ISBN 9780061957291
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Title: Footprints in Time
Author: Petru Popescu

Chapter One

Jack Conran lay in bed, concentrating on falling asleep, but just when he had almost drifted off, he bolted up. Predators were hunting right outside the research center's dorm.

The thirteen-year-old boy listened, his heart pounding when a herd of buffaloes bellowed as they were ambushed. Their attackers snarled and roared. Then lions landed their prey: one buffalo, its voice very loud and frightened. The snarls and roars seemed to gang up on the bellowing, as if the sounds themselves were predator and prey.

The scientists' dorm was an old structure, with cots lined up against a windowed wall. The cots had mosquito nets, which seemed like an exaggerated precaution, since the windows were wired. In the bed next to Jack's, his father opened his eyes.

"Hey," Alan Conran whispered.

The bellowing outside turned into a death moan as the lions' thrashing grew even louder. Jack looked around. He could see the other beds, occupied by his father's colleagues, who were sleeping soundly.

"You'll learn to sleep through it," Dad reassured him.

"Sounds like it's happening right outside," Jack muttered. He didn't want to appear frightened.

"It's miles away," Dad whispered. "There's a night wind that blows over from an enormous crater in the savanna—the Witch's Pot. Amazing how it carries sound. Don't worry—the lions don't hunt so close to the center. They're not stupid. Go back to sleep."

"Could those be lions that you already tagged?" Jack asked.

"No, the tagging area is much closer to the Pot's rim. The lions there are isolated—they've never even seen a hunter, or worse, tourists filming them from planes. Now lie down and close your eyes, okay?"

"Yeah," Jack muttered.

Jack watched Dad settle back into his bed, his face illuminated by moonlight shining through a window screen. Three years earlier, Jack's mom and dad had divorced. Now Jack lived with his mom in California while his dad, a professor and scientist who specialized in human evolution, spent most of his time doing research in Africa.

The wind was gusting, and Jack could still hear fierce snarls in the distance.

"What's happening now?" Jack asked.

"The lionesses are fighting to see who gets the best of the kill," Dad said. "Young lionesses."

"How do you know that?"

"The older ones already have their pecking order worked out. They don't argue, they just eat."

After several minutes passed, Jack whispered, "I can't go back to sleep."

"Just do it," Dad told him. "If you plan to ever be a scientist or an explorer, you've got to be able to tell your body what to do. Think I have to sleep, and you'll nod off in no time."

"Okay," Jack answered. "I'll give it a shot."

Dad turned away from him and went back to sleep. Jack pulled the sheets up to his shoulders, closed his eyes, and tried to will himself to sleep. But it was no use.

Memories of the day, combined with the anticipation of what they would do in the morning, kept his mind humming. They had arrived at the center at nightfall in a mud-caked truck that had tossed Jack around roughly all day. Wearing the brand-new bush shirt, cargo pants, and boots his mom had bought him, Jack sat between his father and a fellow scientist who drove the truck at top speed along a dirt road until it turned into tracks in the high grass. Jack could barely make out the tracks, but the driver followed them expertly. He was a young Tanzanian with long, straightened hair, wearing cargo pants, boots, and a leather jacket stamped with names of rock bands: the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Police, Creedence Clearwater Revival. He looked like a rock musician himself, but Dad had introduced him as Bruce Gobukwe, a zoologist and pilot, and his coresearcher on the lion project. "How many lions have we tagged, Bruce?"

"Twenty and then some." Bruce laughed. His accent sounded British and his cheerful smile gave the impression he hadn't a care in the world. "Don't worry about the truck," he said, chuckling, after a bump that made Jack's head spin. "It's solid as a rock."

"You all right?" Dad patted his son's shoulder. "I threw up the first time I was on this road."

"I'm cool," Jack said between his teeth, trying his best to ignore the gymnastics in his stomach.

"Your son has nerves of steel, Alan." Then Bruce pointed. "Look—giraffes."

Jack counted five of them in the distance. When they heard the truck, the giraffes ran, but because their strides were so long, they appeared to move slowly. The sight took Jack's breath away.

Bruce popped in a CD and sang along with the Stones. On either side of the truck, the bluish mountains of western Tanzania loomed, savanna and scrub desert spreading across the valleys in between. Jack realized that he'd seen no signs of people for hours—no power lines, no villages, no other trucks on the road. Here and there, yellowish fog pulsed and flared above the grassland.

"Bushfires," Alan explained. "The heat out here makes the scrub kindle."

I'm so far from home, Jack thought, his head swimming with nausea and excitement at the same time. Both hands on the wheel, Bruce belted out the refrain to "Satisfaction" and glanced at Jack.

"We taking him lion tagging?" Bruce asked Dad.

Dad said something to Bruce in what could only be Swahili. Bruce answered in Swahili. "Hatawa, hatawa." He nodded, as if conceding a point. Jack had an English-Swahili dictionary in his Bergen shoulder sack that he'd paged through on the flight over, but he still couldn't understand what Dad had said.

"What are you guys talking about?"

"Our research. Sorry, we're used to mixing Swahili with English."

"What does hatawa mean?"

"It's the code name for our research project," Dad said. "Means 'action.' Not only action. It can also mean 'steps' and 'forward!' Hatawa! Forward!"

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