Mistletoe

by: DinoDachsies

Note: Special thanks to Lady P and Monica and Barbara for heeding the cry for a proof reader. And thanks to CAP for lending me the name and the picture. Disclaimer: Borrowed the characters. In brief: sometime into Season 4

"Malone, what are you doing?"
"What's it look like I'm doing, Marguerite?" The young man jammed his boot tip into another hole and lifted himself onto another branch."
"First guess: I'd say you were trying to kill yourself. What exactly are you trying to find in that tree?"
The reporter smiled down at her as he edged along a thick branch. "You'll see."
Marguerite rolled her eyes at his mischievous grin. "Oh, I'll see. I'll see when you fall out of that tree and land at my feet."
Veronica ambled to her side. She broke into a smile at the flower she examined. "Where's Malone?"
Marguerite pointed over her head. "Up a tree without any good sense."
Veronica followed her friend's direction, high into the dense branches of the huge oak. "Malone!"
"I'll be down in a minute!"
Emitting a skeptical snort, Marguerite turned toward the small field to the north of the oak trees. The late afternoon sun spread over the green grass. They had neither seen nor heard a dinosaur in two days. Challenger claimed the temperature up this high was too cold. The grass bowed to a cool breeze. Out in the open, beneath the stars. Nothing big and ugly stomping on you. That field would be an excellent camping spot for the night. Marguerite shifted the weighty contents of her backpack. Even with no running from dinosaurs their climb into the mountains had been slow with backpacks laden with coffee beans. Somewhere around here was a tribe rumored to be incredible weavers. The Zanga had traded with a tribe who traded with a tribe who traded with these mysterious mountain folk. The linen Assai had shown off would sew nicely into shirts. Even Marguerite agreed to the arduous trek for a chance at new shirts.
"Ned, be careful." Veronica tossed her flower into a nearby bush.
A few tense moments later, the reporter dropped onto the ground, slipping on the brittle fall leaves. Veronica lunged forward. Ever smiling, Ned grabbed her shoulders. Veronica slid her arms around him, steadying him.
Marguerite returned her glare onto the young man. "And what, pray tell, was worth all this fuss?"
The pair giggled as they pulled leaves off his shirt. "Yes, Ned. What where you looking for?"
"This." Malone reached into both his shirt pockets and pulled out his treasure.
Veronica delicately examined the plants that lay in his palm. Several red berries clung to the center of each clump of dark green leaves. "I know this plant. Meeloe? Mastloe?"
Marguerite looked over her shoulder. "Mistletoe."
"Mistletoe," Veronica recalled. "It's a medicinal plant."
"It's a poison," Marguerite chuckled, stepping away from the couple in expectation.
"It's traditional use is much more interesting," Malone grinned. Moving closer to Veronica, he dangled the plant over their heads. His grin disappeared. Half closing his eyes, he leaned down and lightly kissed the fair- haired girl.
"What was that for?"
Marguerite folded her arms and turned around. "It is an old custom that two people who meet under mistletoe must kiss. Afterwards a berry is plucked from the bunch. When all the berries are removed..."
"The mistletoe is tossed into a fire so the spark of desire is always there." Roxton shouldered his rifle as he and Challenger joined their friends.
"Rubbish," the scientist snorted, snatching the plants from Malone. "Mistletoe actually means dung-on-a-twig. Celts believed mistletoe sprang to life from bird dung left on branches. This beauty is Viscum album. One of the rarer varieties. Only grows in oak trees as I recall."
"Like that one?" Malone pointed at the huge tree to their left.
"Oh. Yes. Exactly. It's been so long since we've seen an oak tree... Well, I can't recall exactly when."
"England." Marguerite snarled, walking away from the group.
Roxton snapped up one of the plants from Challenger. "Has it been that long?" Tossing the Mistletoe from hand to hand, Roxton approached Marguerite.
The woman sidestepped him. "Don't think about it, Lord Roxton."
He dangled the plant at eye level. "Why whatever do you mean, Marguerite?" Holding her stare with his own, he lifted the plant tantalizingly close to the top of her head.
"It takes more than a plant to elicit a kiss from me, sir."
"Really," he teased.
Challenger stepped between them. "Come on you two. We've got to decide how to proceed now."
Taking a step back, Roxton flashed a dejected smile at Marguerite. His sad look only won a smirk from the lady as she sauntered past him toward the others. Letting out a frustrated sigh, Roxton explained Challenger's cryptic statement to everyone. "We found tracks. Boot tracks."
"Boot?" Veronica considered.
The scientist searched in his pack for a specimen jar. "Don't forget the other tracks. Apemen."
"Apemen." Marguerite glanced around. "But I thought they had migrated..."
"Yes." Challenger slid the plant delicately into the jar. "They've migrated alright."
"But isn't it too cold?" Veronica pointed out.
Challenger's attention focused on the matter at hand. "Malone, how far up the tree did you have to go..."
Marguerite hissed his name. "Challenger. Isn't it too cold for apemen?"
"Hard to say. They are human."
"Sorta," Malone winced, recalling several encounters with the creatures that had left him bruised and dazed.
"Well, they are as adaptable as humans." Challenger gave into speculation. "Perhaps they realized dinosaurs aren't here. They're largely vegetarian. And Roxton and I noticed numerous edible..."
"George," Marguerite interrupted. "Regardless of where they are, they're still very territorial."
"Which leads us back to the original question," Roxton pressed. "Do we continue looking for our mysterious tribe or do we make a fortified camp for the night?"
Marguerite shouldered her rifle. "May I suggest the clearing up ahead?"
Even though the distance was short, Roxton took point.
Malone smelt them before he saw them.
"Down!" The reporter yanked Veronica to the ground. Several large stones flew past.
"Did you two escort the apemen here or just leave them a signpost?" Marguerite dropped to her knees.
"We've got to get to the clearing!" Roxton grabbed her arm. "We'll stand a better chance if we can see them!"
Malone and Veronica caught Challenger as he swayed from the stone that struck his arm. "I'm alright. Keep going."
Roxton shoved Marguerite ahead, remaining behind the others. He fired several shots into the bushes. Crouching, he backed up slowly. Two shots zoomed past him.
"Will you hurry up!" Marguerite took aim and fired again.
"As you command, my countess."
"Are you ever going to let that die?"
They wheeled around and darted into the field.
Malone knelt on one knee, his rifle aimed. Veronica took position behind him, scrutinizing the forest around them. If the apemen were smart enough to escape the dinosaurs by migrating here, they might be smart enough to surround them.
Challenger passed Roxton a bag of ammunition. The English Lord crowded Marguerite until she had no choice but to get behind him. With an accusatory oath about men, she joined Veronica, looking for any movement from the left of them.
A single apeman charged them. His primitive wooden spear waved defiantly in their direction. Roxton fired over his head.
"Let's just try and scare them away."
"What the hell?" Malone turned forty-five degrees. "What is this guy doing?"
A tall thin man dressed in black coat, pants, and boots stepped out of the forest shadows. Brandishing a book over his head, he began reciting the Lord's Prayer.
"Bloody hell!" Roxton planted both feet and took aim. An apeman fell a mere foot from the man.
Veronica and Malone ran to the stranger. "Are you crazy?"
The man stood rigid. "I will be protected from the demons."
Malone grabbed his arm. "Come on!"
Half dragging him, they got the man into their circle.
"Down!" Marguerite gripped his shoulder and pressed him to the ground.
Six apemen charged. The four aimed their rifles. Immediately the creatures dove for the cover of the bushes.
"Oh, I don't like that." Challenger lowered his weapon. "They understand our rifles. These creatures have learned a great deal since our last encounter."
From their right echoed gunfire.
Marguerite paled. "They can't have guns, can they?"
English words soon followed a second round of gunfire.
"Reverend Pike!" Another man stepped out of the forest, a musket half raised.
"Be careful!" Veronica warned. "There are..."
"Demons," the man called back, now joined by two more. The three men backed up toward them. "We've been tracking them."
The first man kept his musket ready, but extended his hand. "Gregory Penn."
"How do you do?" Challenger accepted it. "George Challenger. This is Lord John Roxton. Marguerite Krux. Ned Malone. And Veronica Layton."
"Good Lord, woman." The man quickly shed his coat. "One of those demons has practically torn your cloths from you."
"What?"
Marguerite took the coat. "Thank you. We've been running and hadn't time to tend to her needs."
Veronica stammered as her companion held the coat out for her. "What are..."
She whispered into her ear. "When in Rome."
Malone stood in front on her and buttoned it. "They look like Puritans."
"Or Quakers," Marguerite added.
Her friends' guessing did nothing to appease her irritation. "So why am I supposed..."
"These people would be affronted by your dress, Veronica. Just play along, please."
Veronica forced a smile as she thanked Penn for the loan of his coat.
"It'll be dark soon," announced Penn. "We'd best get to the village and shelter."
Challenger had learned to keep his judgments to himself, but he had to ask the question screaming in his mind. "You mentioned demons, Penn?"
Penn's men flanked Marguerite and Veronica. One nodded shyly at Veronica. "We'll look after you, ma'am."
Malone edged closer. Marguerite glared him silent.
Penn carried his musket like Roxton his rifle. "Yes, Master Challenger. The beasts that chased you; they are demons." The last word shook with emotion.
"Where we come from they are called apemen."
"Then like their master, they have deceived you, for demons they are. Their numbers have been increasing as though a gateway to Hell has opened. Two nights ago the Williams' farm was attacked. A child was stolen as well as a goat." He stopped and turned to Challenger. "A man may have need of a goat, but only a demon has need of a child."
Veronica gasped. "Why would they take a child?"
Challenger glanced over his shoulder. "Why would they, indeed?"
Marguerite kept the idea of meat to herself.

***************

The village consisted of fifteen cottages, some with shop signs posted on the front. A blacksmith shop sat on one end of the only street and a church at the other. But there were far too many people walking the streets than could belong to the fifteen houses.
A woman with a small girl in tow trotted to them. She took Penn's hand. "Any sign of them?"
He shook his head and pulled free of her. "Would you see to our guests, Miranda?" Wheeling around, he quickly joined a group of men heading toward the church.
"Hello." Her smile was warm and genuine. "I am Miranda Penn and this is Judith."
"How do you do," Roxton smiled, stooping to take Judith's hand. He made brief introductions then the explorers followed them to a small cottage near what on closer inspection appeared to be a jail.
The cottage's front room was narrow and sparsely furnished, though the indications of a child's presence were everywhere. Marguerite stepped over a bear as Malone stumbled on a small block.
Judith's eyes widened as she turned to her mother. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not the one to apologize to, young lady."
Hiding her face in the strands of hair poking out of her bonnet, Judith whispered her regret that Master Malone had broken her block.
Veronica laughed. Kneeling down she picked up the splintered toy. "You know, I'll bet Master Malone can carve you another one." She shot a firm look at Ned. "Can't you, Master Malone?"
Ned scrutinized the wood stacked by the huge fireplace. "I believe I can."
Judith's look of excitement vanished as she noticed her mother's irritation. "She knows better than to leave her toys scattered on the floor."
"Oh, I don't mind." Ned had already mentally selected a large chunk of wood.
Miranda broke into a wide smile. "You sound just like her father. Now, young lady, make amends by helping me set the table. You all must be famished."
"Oh, no, we wouldn't think of imposing on you," Roxton laid his rifle on the table. "If you could direct us to an inn or..."
Miranda's smile broke into laughter. "Lord Roxton, we have few visitors and those who do come are our guests. We pride ourselves on our hospitality." She set a large wooden bowl full of apples on the table.
Judith strained to lift a pitcher of water to the tabletop. Veronica caught it as it missed by an inch. "Thank you." Her blue eyes peaked from beneath her bonnet.
"Fetch the glasses, sweetheart."
Judith paused as she counted the strangers. "Five," she declared proudly.
Even Challenger smiled.
"Please, rest and refresh yourself. Judith and I must join our fellows at the church. Gregory will report and the reverend will... well... the reverend will also have a few things to say, I'm sure." Her lips pursed as she considered what her words had implied. "The reverend will guide us as always through trying times. He is a good man." Miranda caught her daughter's hand. "We should return by dark."
The door creaked shut.
Marguerite moved immediately in front of the hearth, being mindful of the huge pot hanging over the flames. "Wonder what that meant?"
"What what meant?" Veronica shed the heavy coat and hung it on a peg near the door. Quickly she joined Marguerite by the fire.
"I agree," Challenger grunted, letting his pack slide off his shoulders. "I'd say there was concern in our hostess' voice."
Malone weighed his chosen piece of wood in his hand. "If these people are descendants from Puritans or Quakers or any predominantly religious society then that reverend demands a lot of respect."
"And power," Marguerite added, examining the apples. She took a bite and emitted a sound of delight. "Care for a bite?" Marguerite waved the apple beneath Roxton's nose.
"Age old story," he chuckled, accepting the fruit.
"An apple," Veronica marveled.
"You've never had one, have you?" Malone selected one and handed it to her. "They are absolutely..."
"Yummy," Marguerite finished, snatching another one from the bowl.
Challenger snorted at the enthusiasm toward a fruit. "Do you think there are village elders? Should we go to the reverend to ask permission to trade? Any suggestions from anybody?"
Marguerite peeked into one of the back rooms. She let out a long sigh. "I'd say we sleep on it." A huge bed was tucked into the corner of the room. The mattress ticking hung over its wooden rails. At least three quilts lay piled at its foot.
"And look at this." Veronica opened the other door. More blocks covered the floor of a smaller room. A narrow wooden bed almost disappeared in the windowless dark.
"Before you two Goldilocks try out the beds, I'd suggest we get organized." Roxton pulled a shirt from his pack. "Marguerite, do have a skirt or something for Veronica?"
Veronica wore the same expression as Judith at the reminder of their church meeting. "I don't understand why I..."
"Imagine poor Judith's face at seeing you - um - naked. By their standards," Malone quickly added.
"Our good reverend would probably have her eyes gouged out." Marguerite dug for her skirt.
Veronica snatched it from Marguerite's hand. Roxton cautiously tossed her his shirt. "This better be a short stay."

***************

Their hosts must have thought them a happy group. All except Veronica smiled through dinner. Their hosts didn't notice Veronica pulling and tugging at the skirt constricting her movements. They'd hear it the entire trip back but these moments were...
"Priceless," Marguerite nodded.
"Miranda is one of the more talented weavers."
His wife flashed a dubious smile his way as she rose with her plate.
Penn eyed his guests' packs piled in a corner of the cooking area. "And though these coffee beans sound tempting, we have a greater need of metals. Where did you mine the metal for your weapons?"
"Our weapons?" Malone considered. "Oh, no we..."
"Can't reveal that information," Challenger interrupted. "But I happen to have in my pack a brick of lead."
"Lead," Penn nodded, anticipation growing on his face. "Now that we can trade for."
Marguerite rubbed her shoulders. "You may have the coffee beans with my compliments. Consider them thanks for allowing us to stay the night."
Miranda and Judith finished clearing off the table.
"Perhaps you ladies would enjoy inspecting Miranda's pieces."
"I haven't finished the dishes," she protested.
Penn took his wife's hand and kissed it. "Tonight is special. I'll help you later."
The expression on her face revealed his offer was infrequent.
Marguerite stood smiling. "Well, I, for one, never have to have my arm twisted to not do dishes. Ladies, let's leave these gentlemen to do their trading."

***************

A trunk set to one side of the room. Miranda removed the two pewter candleholders and chipped vase. She considered laying them on the floor, but then her eyes fell on her fidgeting daughter. Marguerite smiled, taking them from her and placing them on the dresser.
"My colors tend to be somewhat paler than most of my fellows." Hesitating at the latch, Miranda exhaled and opened the trunk.
Veronica wasn't sure how far down the neatly folded material extended, but the three on top were beautiful. "These are lovely, Miranda."
Marguerite gasped taking the soft blue fabric piece from the top. Her mind saw a shirt for herself, but her heart settled on one for Roxton. She measured the piece, stretching it from her nose to the end of her outstretched arm. There would be just enough for Roxton's long arms. Self- consciously she folded it again. "Which pieces are you willing to part with, Miranda?"
The woman gazed expressionless into her trunk, then a wide smile spread across her face. "Well, that piece for sure. And I've another somewhere in the pile if you need more."
"You and Roxton can match," Veronica smirked.
Marguerite ignored her. The prospect of new clothing was too overwhelming. "We'll have to see the value your husband places on the lead, but yes, this piece and its mate would be wonderful!"
Miranda held up an off-white piece in front of Veronica. "And your choice?"
"Oh, I'm more partial to brown. Doesn't show dirt as quickly."
"I completely understand. I'd dress Judith exclusively in brown if she didn't love blue so much."
Glancing into the front room, Marguerite noticed Roxton also producing a bar of lead from his pack. Smiling to herself she leaned against the bed and clutched both pieces to her. "Miranda, where did your people originate from?" she asked absently.
"Somewhere along the east coast of the New World. I'm not sure anyone knows the exact location anymore. The stories handed down described it as beautiful but harsh. Our forebears were fortunate the Indian tribes near about took pity on them and helped. They taught them how to plant the crops native to the soil. Cotton," she stroked the off-white material as she laid it to one side before pulling out another piece for Veronica to consider. "And there was corn. They'd brought potatoes, other seeds when they came across an ocean."
Veronica prodded deeper. "How did your forebears get here? To this place?"
"The record kept by the church tells of a day when an Indian warrior ran to the village warning of witches on their way. He said his tribe had already left but he had come to guide their new friends to safety. Alas, by the time he reached the village it was too late to escape. Even as he entered the settlement, the weather changed: the air grew cold and dark clouds choked the sky. In the distance echoed evil laughter, the noise shattering branches from the trees. The people and the Indian dropped to their knees in fear. The reverend prayed as he never had prayed. They saw dark shadows stretching across the fields. Reaching for them. Suddenly the cackles ended as God's shimmering robe circled them, carrying their goods, their houses, their fields and them away from the witches. To here He hide them. But after so many years of searching, the witches have found us again. Their coming is heralded by the demons stalking our lands."
"So ladies..."
Marguerite and Veronica jumped. "Don't you know how to knock?"
"Sorry." Roxton fingered the cloth Marguerite clutched. "Very nice." He returned to the outer room "That'll make a fine shirt for Malone."

***************

Roxton winced from the sudden weight on his legs. Only the crackling fire interrupted the silence and its darkness. Forcing his muscles to relax, he opened his eyes to narrow slits. A quilt-clad ghost had deposited itself on his legs, angrily shaking Challenger's shoulder.
"What I want to know," she hissed, "Is whether there was a lead brick in my pack!"
"Not now, Marguerite," Veronica shushed, squatting next to Malone. Quickly she related the story Miranda had told them earlier.
Challenger set up. "Amazing."
"Keep your voice down," Malone urged. As the time arrived to retire for the night, Judith joined her parents in their room, leaving Marguerite and Veronica her room and the gentlemen the front room floor. "Do you really think it was a time shift?"
"What else could it be? Ask yourself: how else could a people settling the wilderness of the New World end up on this plateau? They have no knowledge of the United States..."
"All right, George," Marguerite yawned. "You can continue this conversation with yourself while the rest of us go back to sleep. We just thought you should know about it before the village 'break-the-fast' tomorrow."
As Veronica stood, a peculiar expression appeared on Malone's face. His question was automatic and immediately regretted.
"What are you wearing?"
"The quilt," she shrugged.
Malone's face turned as red as the fire.
Roxton's eyes traveled up the length of Marguerite's quilt. "In your dreams, buster. I borrowed a nightshirt from Miranda."
He let out a long sigh and laid back down. "In my dreams."

***************

The village and its out-lying farms gathered every Saturday for a mid- morning meal, a little gossiping, marketing, and fun. Tables and chairs were brought outside and set in the town square. While the parents were more subdued in their preparations today, the children ran helter-skelter about the buildings and meal fires and Lord John Roxton. With his usual good heartedness, Roxton allowed one of the older boys to hold his rifle. After the story spread, everyone, including many of the men, surrounded him asking for a chance to hold it.
Marguerite gave out an exasperated sigh as she set another plate on the table. "Veronica, you may have to put your normal clothes back on to scatter that crowd around Roxton."
Her eyebrow raised in amusement. Veronica followed Marguerite with the wooden forks and spoons. "I don't think they'd notice me. And don't tempt me." She pulled at the skirt's waist.
"You pop that button off, you'd better find it. Buttons are as hard to find as men doing what they've been asked to do."
Malone exited the Penn's cottage with the last of the chairs. "What, Marguerite?"
"Never mind, Ned."
At one of the tables the blacksmith raised his bell. It's sound carried easily through the town and its surrounding area. Several wayward boys broke out of the forest and bolted for a table.
The reverend folded his hands as he promenaded to the center of the tables. It was a firm fifteen minutes by Challenger's watch before they ate.
Penn took great pride in the feast he shared with his guests. The yard behind the jail and its cottage showed the remnants of a garden.
Challenger leaned close to Miranda. His census revealed two hundred and thirty-five people attached to the village. Very few persons were from the 'outside'. "Your husband is the constable. As I understand it, Reverend Pike is not only your spiritual leader but your mayor."
"Yes. The position of constable is the only one not inherited. A vote is taken every two years on the first Sabbath of the New Year. Gregory has been constable ten years."
"How many years has your village been here?"
"Two hundred and three years."
Challenger beamed. His eyes were lost in the wrinkles of a wide smile. "Two hundred years, you say." He turned to Malone. "Did you hear that?"
"Sure, Professor. Could you pass the cornbread?"
"Two hundred years is all they've been here." Staring across from him, he caught Veronica's eyes. "That means that time is not linear, but circular or even spiral. At least on the plateau."
"That's nice, Professor. Malone, pass me the beans."
He tried to gain Marguerite's attention. "That means we could leave here and get back the day after we left."
"George, eat your food before it gets cold."
Judith wedged herself and her plate between Challenger and her mother. "What's linear?"
It was probably the last question Judith would ever ask. "Linear" and time as linear was explained for over thirty minutes, until the poor bleary-eyed child escaped to another table for dessert.
After the children descended upon the dessert table, the villagers broke into three groups. The men meandered toward the huge bonfire, leaving the women to cleanup after the feast. Once the desserts were gone, the children sneaked away from their mothers and possible chores to partake in games and sports.
"You know," Marguerite contemplated as she stacked another dish, "Someone should introduce these women to the twentieth century."
"Take it easy, Marguerite. If I can wear this outfit, you can do dishes."
"This better be a short stay."
Roxton tried to hide his smile at watching Marguerite locked into domestic displeasure.
Malone chuckled under his breath. "They're both going to make our lives a living hell on the way back."
"Will you help, Lord Roxton?" Penn pointed to the men behind him. "We were wondering if you might go with us to the Williams farm. I realize the trail is cold, but ..."
The man introduced earlier as Jamison Williams stepped forward, his head bowed slightly. "We just can't give up hope yet, my Lord."
Roxton laid his hand on his shoulder. Malone witnessed another side to "Lord" John Roxton. His tone changed, his stance more rigid. "Of course, we'll try. All three of us will go with you. As soon as you're ready to..."
"Help!" Three boys stumbled out of the brush. Two dragged one between them. "Father!"
Everyone dashed for the boys. Malone caught the injured boy as he slid to the ground. His father smiled his thanks and grabbed his son into his arms.
"What happened?" several men shouted at once.
"Apemen," Roxton stated. Welts, bruises and cuts covered the boys.
"They're coming," one of the boys wheezed.
Penn roused his friends from the bushes. "Everybody get to the center of town."
"Get to the bonfire," Challenger added. "These creatures don't like fire."
"It's because these demons know it will send them home," announced the reverend.
"Yeah, whatever you say, reverend." Malone shoved him with the crowd. "Just get there."
"Malone!"
Challenger and Ned recognized Roxton's tone. Black shadows flashed in and out of the trees and brush.
Roxton drew his pistol as he backed away.
Two apemen bolted for Roxton. In their area of the plateau, the apemen's spears had been little more than short pointed sticks, their use limited to a thrusting motion. But the one that flew from between the trees barely missed Roxton's arm.
"Bloody hell!"
He fired at the two that rushed him. They fell at his feet.
"Roxton! Two o'clock!" Malone skidded to a halt and charged back. The rifle he was going to retrieve could wait.
Roxton turned too slow. The apeman knocked the pistol from his hand. With a stone it struck him hard on the side of his head. Roxton wobbled, trying not to fall. They'd swarm on him if he fell. He saw the rock approach his face.
A shot rang past him. The apeman fell.
He didn't need to look behind him. "That's my girl."
Malone caught him. Another man, Williams, grabbed his other arm. They half dragged him back.
Marguerite took aim again. Another apeman fell. Casting an admiring eye on her, Penn took up a position next to her. With amazing speed, he loaded his musket and fired. An apeman staggered back. A smaller one caught him. Dragging their dead and wounded, they all disappeared into the woods and its afternoon shadows.
Several men gathered around Marguerite. "Incredible."
Roxton wiped the blood from his cheek with his sleeve.
"You sure you can stand?" Malone reluctantly let go.
"I'll be fine. Get everyone together. We've got a fresh trail now. They've got wounded so they'll make for their lair."
Applying pressure to his cheek with his palm, Roxton walked to Marguerite. His attempt to smile failed and started the cut bleeding again.
A beefy man maneuvered in front of Marguerite. "A woman? This is a man's gun." Snarling at her, he seized it from her. Weighing it in his hands, he took aim into the forest. The smile that grew across his face was crooked and aimed at Penn. "This is what a constable should have."
"Give that back to me." Marguerite reached for her rifle.
The man shoved her away. She stumbled into Penn.
Roxton jerked the rifle from his hand and returned it to Marguerite. "Never take a weapon from someone who just saved your life, man or woman." He leaned closer. "Especially not this woman."
The man threw a contemptuous glare at Marguerite as he turned to leave. Looking over his shoulder, he smirked again at Penn.
Marguerite slid an arm around Roxton to steady him.
The English Lord checked for blood on his check. "Who the hell was that?"
Penn looked past them at the back of the man. "That is Cyrus Pike. The reverend's second son." Penn considered the rifle Marguerite held. "He's wanted to be constable for a long time."
"Most of the men are ready," Malone informed them.
Her grip on him tightened. "Roxton, you're not going anywhere."
Weakly, he tried to push her away. "I'll be fine."
"And how many times have I heard that?"
"They need me to follow the trail. It'll get harder to see the deeper it goes into the forest."
"Well, they can take..."
Malone violently shook his head. Veronica shedding her acceptable outfit would not be well received. They all knew it. The jungle-raised girl stood rigid near a table, her fingers clinched in fists. Challenger slid his arm around her shoulder and whispered something to her.
"I'll be fine."

***************

Penn left several men behind at the village. Cyrus Pike took charge as soon as they were out of sight, stationing those few around the village as lookouts.
That left him in the village.
Marguerite kept her rifle shouldered even as she dried the dishes. "Out of my cold dead hand," she muttered, observing Pike through the window.
Miranda shelved the stack of plates into the cupboard. "Pike has wanted Gregory's job for a while. I know this sounds foolish, but he frightens me somehow."
"Don't feel bad," Veronica crossed to the window and shut it. "He frightens me and I know how. I've never seen a man covet a gun like that. Reminded me of you looking a diamond, Marguerite."
"I wonder what length he'd go to get it?" Marguerite dried the last of the utensils.
"You should know." Veronica stretched against the waistband of the skirt. "I shouldn't have eaten as much as I did."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry," Marguerite smiled. "It doesn't show like it does in your other outfit."
"Have you seen Judith? She was right here a moment ago."
"I'll go look for her," Veronica volunteered through clinched teeth. From the doorway, Veronica watched as Judith darted between several other girls playing tag. "Now what do you suppose is going on over there?"
The other two women joined her at the door.
"Oh," Marguerite took a deep breath. "I don't like the look of this."
At least a dozen of the village women huddled around Pike. His expression did not convey words of encouragement. One woman or another always looked toward the Penn cottage.
Miranda pushed past Veronica. "I'd better get Judith."
"Come on." Veronica and Marguerite followed her outside.
"Judith!" Her mother caught her as she evaded Tommy James. "Let's get inside. Mistress Veronica needs your advice on which cloth to select."
"Mistress Penn." Pike met her in three long strides. "Mistress Williams has made a serious accusation against you."
"Has she?" Miranda pushed Judith to Veronica, then stood to meet Pike's gaze. "Then let her tell me herself. I have known Ginny since girlhood. She has but to say what I have done to offend her and I will make it right."
Ginny Williams shrank behind several other women.
Pike blocked her view. "She states you were there the afternoon her child disappeared."
"Yes. I brought my completed quilt squares to her. Next Saturday several of us will be piecing it together."
"Did you lead the demons to her house?"
The question so surprised Miranda she was speechless.
"Your silence speaks the truth."
"Wait a minute." Marguerite stood beside Miranda. "First of all those creatures are not demons. Second of all they go where they want."
"Silence!" Pike boomed in her face.
"Marguerite." Miranda edged in front of her. "Stay out of this." Hands on hips, she faced Pike. "I led no demons. I am a God-fearing woman."
"Oh, no. This just can't be happening." Marguerite stooped down to Judith. "Go inside. Now!"
The frightened child did as she was told.
"That was hardly called for, Marguerite."
"Veronica, this over grown gorilla is about to accuse Miranda of witchcraft."
Veronica made a skeptical snort. "You're kidding."
Miranda walked around Cyrus and to gain her friend's attention. "Ginny! What are you saying?"
Pike answered her. "You are accused by your neighbors, Miranda Penn, of being a witch."
Miranda's look changed from surprise to bemusement to fear.
"Over your door, Mistress Penn," Cyrus pointed. "I see no mistletoe. Mistress Williams, did Mistress Penn enter your house?"
Several other women answered for her. "No."
"Does mistletoe sit on your doorframe to keep witches out?"
More women chimed in. "Yes!"
"This is insanity!" Marguerite shouted.
Veronica held her back. "Shut up, Marguerite. We're strangers. All we can do is make it worse."
Pike strutted between Miranda and the group of women. "You did not enter the Williams' house because you could not. There is no mistletoe over your door for then you could not enter."
"I will hear no more of this, Cyrus Pike. We shall wait for the law and the Reverend to address this matter further." She turned to go home.
Pike latched onto her arm and swung her around. "No, woman, you are going to jail." Shoving Miranda in front of him, Pike directed her to the cottage next to her own.
Judith burst from the house screaming for her mother.
"Of course a witch's child cries for her mother." He caught the small girl and tucked her under his burly arm.
Several of the village women looked uneasy at this new event.
"Well?" Marguerite urged them. But the women drifted to their homes looking anywhere but behind them.

***************

For two hours, they traveled steadily to the east, past the Williams' farm, past the Shaw's farm. Roxton ordered everyone to halt about a hundred yards from a rocky hillside.
"That's probably their home."
"Then why do we wait?" The reverend started forward.
Malone shoved him down. "Do you want to get yourself killed?"
Roxton observed the shadows in the rocks. "Listen-up, Reverend. Demons, apemen, whatever. Those creatures know we're here."
"I know this place," Penn proclaimed.
"Are there caves?"
"No, there's a wide ledge about halfway up. It goes back about three or four feet. I remember there's plenty of cover to keep the rain off."
"The creatures-er-demons live in an extended family." Squinting, Challenger watched the dark shadows milling about. "I don't think we ever saw more than twenty in a group."
"This amount of men tromping through the jungle couldn't sneak up on my deaf great aunt." Roxton looked over his shoulder. Most of these men were farmers. "There's no telling what they might do with the child if they see us charging up there."
Williams drew a deep breath. "Do you thing he may still be alive?"
Challenger forced a hopeful smile. "I'm wondering if they didn't take him to replace another child. If that's the case, I'd say there is a good chance he's still alive."
The reverend raised his hands. "Praise God."
"You keep raising your voice and you might meet Him sooner than later." Roxton wanted a look at this ledge from another angle. "Challenger, keep everyone here. Malone, Penn come with me."
They circled through the forest.
"There!" Malone's incredible vision caught a glimpse of an apeman.
"I see him," Penn agreed.
"All right. We know they're definitely there. Does everyone agree our priority is to save the child?"
The other two nodded.
"Then we don't go in there to slaughter. We go in there to create a diversion, draw their attention to below the ledge so someone can get on there and look for the child."
"Someones," Malone corrected.
Roxton slapped him on the back. Since returning the reporter had been more daring, but luck was never completely on Malone's side. Quietly, they rejoined the villagers.
"We have a plan," Reverend Pike announced, a little too loudly.
"So do we," Malone smiled tightly. "And ours is better."
"But," the Reverend stammered. "You haven't even heard ours."
"It probably goes like everybody rush up the front of the hill and kill as many of the creatures as possible."
The Reverend gapped at Malone. "And what's wrong with..."
Penn took charge of his people. "This is the plan: we're going to split into four groups. On my signal, the group on the top of the hill will hurl down stones, pinecones, or whatever we gather. After two minutes, the groups beneath the ledge will make as much noise as possible. Throw rocks, sticks anything to distract these demons... and not hurt the baby. Lord Roxton, Malone, and Williams will try to get into their camp. If the rest of us have diverted the demons well enough, they'll be able to search for the child."
"No," the Reverend protested. "If this child is alive, then he..."
Williams crouched over Pike. "Perhaps, Reverend, you would like to just stay here and pray."
Penn separated his men into the four groups.
"Gather any rocks, sticks, whatever," Roxton instructed. "Anything that will distract them. Scream, shout, sing. Just make plenty of noise. We want their attention on you, not us."
"They're weak minded creatures," Challenger interjected. "And easily distracted. You just have to keep them busy."
Roxton directed three groups to proceed beneath the hillside, one on each side and one group in the middle. The fourth group made its way up the side of the hill, as close to the top as they dared. Roxton, Malone, and Williams accompanied went them only part of the way.
Twenty minutes later the four groups sat fortified with anything loose piled in front of them. Stones, acorns, mud, they had heaps of them. Each man crouched, awaiting Penn's signal.
Roxton lit the torch.
Stones rained down on the apemen. From where they hid, Roxton watched the resulting chaos. The creatures darted along the ledges, rocks pelting them. After two minutes, the barrage from the top ceased and the men at the base of the hill began tossing whatever they had. Roxton smiled. The group above had provided plenty of ammunition for these apemen to hurl down below. Stones, pinecones, acorns struck the creatures. The creatures turned hysterical, scooping up the debris and hurling it back. They ran into each other in their fury and fear.
"There!" Malone pointed. He was right again.
A whimpering female huddled over the child shielding it from the fighting. Roxton grabbed William's arm. "Don't kill her. She's just trying to protect it."
"She stole my son!" Williams accused.
Roxton gave Malone a subtle nod. Covering his head with his arms, Malone ran into the melee. The apemen didn't notice him. As Roxton had hoped, they saw only above and below.
Malone reached for the boy, trying to calm the female. Like the creature she had been named for, the female jumped up and down screeching. Her grip on the boy only tightened. Malone couldn't catch her. Roxton ran next to him.
"Grab the boy!" The hunter slugged the female as hard as he could. She teetered, her grip finally loosening on the boy. Malone snatched him and ran. A claw dug into his arm. Ned jerked away, feeling the flesh rip. Williams shoved him past, then hurled two stones at the creature, sending it back. Roxton ran a strange sort of gauntlet. Stones pelted him from above while apemen lunged for him from all sides. Williams was there for him too, resisting the urge to hold his son. With a thick branch, he beat back the apemen that dove for the English Lord.
"Thank you," Roxton panted.
Malone's arm spasmed from the gashes. "Can we shoot at them now?"
Roxton nodded and drew his pistols. Firing over their heads, they retreated down the hillside to the villagers waiting.
"Georgie," his father cooed.
Challenger made a cursory exam of the boy. "Appears no worse for the wear."
Like everyone else Penn couldn't suppress his smile. "May I suggest we leave this place before these demons rally?"

***************

"So you think she stole him because she lost her own child?" Penn made the mistake of asking Challenger.
"Well, the one that had the boy was definitely a female. Her, ahem, glands were swollen so she was probably lactating. I saw her protecting no other children, so I'd say recently she had lost her own. As to whether such a creature would associate that boy with her own dead child..." Challenger didn't notice Roxton and Penn inching ahead of him.
Roxton kept a worried eye on Malone. The bleeding had stopped, but the wound needed cleaning and he'd need rest. Veronica would have to wear that skirt a few days longer. His chuckle stretched into a smile as Marguerite ran from Penn's cottage toward them.
She stopped in front of him, holding him at arm's length checking for blood or clothing tears. "You're fine," she stately flatly, turning her attention to Penn.
"Well, thank you, Marguerite..."
The woman cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Gregory, Cyrus Pike took Miranda and Judith to the jail. He's claiming she's a witch."
The men around froze at the uttered word.
"Witch?" Williams doubted loudly.
"Yes! And your wife is the accuser."
A stunned Williams pushed forward holding his son. "No. She's simply mad with grief. I'll straighten all this out."
"Gregory Penn." Cyrus Pike exited the jail, a musket in his hand. "You are no longer constable. Your judgment would be clouded by the matter at hand. Since I am a deputy I have interceded. Is that all right, Reverend?"
His father worked his way out of the crowd. "We'll let your decision stand for the moment. I need more details of this grave accusation against Miranda Penn."
Veronica slipped out of the jail bearing a tray of food. One look at Malone, she deposited it off to one side and rushed to him. Her arms encircled him adding to Challenger's support of the exhausted reporter.
"Come on. We've got to get you inside."
Malone held his ground and his rifle. "Not yet. I've got a bad feeling about this."
Pike's eyes traveled to Marguerite and her shouldered rifle. "But your wife, Penn, is not the source of the evil descending upon this town.
Marguerite felt his disdainful stare. Sliding her hand into his, she whispered his name. "John?"
Roxton felt it to. Something was about...
"Miranda Penn admitted that this stranger came to her in dreams, long before she arrived here, and lured her to evil." Pike's huge hand pointed stiffly at Marguerite.
Roxton pushed her behind him, leaving both hands on his rifle.
"John," Challenger cautioned. "Don't do anything rash."
"You lured Miranda away from God!" Pike boomed.
"That's absurd!"
Before Roxton could act, two men wrenched Marguerite from him, yanking her rifle from her shoulder. Challenger pushed the barrel of Roxton's rifle down. "Think of what you're doing, man."
He struggled to reach Marguerite. "Apparently I'm the only one who is still thinking."
Attempting to reassure the English lord, Reverend Pike positioned himself next to Marguerite. "We'll clear this up quickly, Lord Roxton. My wife and her sister will just check Mistress Marguerite for any witch's marks on her body. After none are found, the matter can be quickly forgotten and you may be on your way."
Roxton's expression grew wilder. He knew what the reverend's wife and sister would find.
Williams laid his hand on Penn's shoulder. "Ginny will straighten this out once she's seen the boy."
Penn said nothing.
The child in his arms sensed his anger. Williams cooed him to silence. "Cyrus, where is my wife?
"In the church with her sister. She prays for guidance. Perhaps you should join her."
Glancing back, Williams witnessed memories grow short. Many men in the crowd expectantly watched the door that hid Marguerite and the Reverend's family. His pace quickened toward the church.
A scream shattered the angry standoff. Roxton's face paled with fear. He knew what they found.
Marguerite stumbled out of the cottage, the two older women shoving her forward with a broom. Her face was a mixture of hate and anger and tears.
"Help us, Reverend!" One of the women dropped to her knees. "We touched her. We are unclean."
Challenger started toward Marguerite. "What on earth is going on here?"
The reverend blocked him with his arm. "Wife, what did you find?"
"Two serpents are on her shoulder. She is the witch. She sent the demons upon us and bewitched Miranda."
"It is she!" The other woman rushed up to Marguerite pointing and screaming. "It is she!"
"I am not a witch. I will admit to a few other not so nice aspects of myself, but I am no witch!"
Cyrus joined his father. "You deny it?"
"Of course, I deny being a witch."
"Then why did the demons herald your coming? Why did they maul this man Malone and not the one who serves you?"
"Servant!" Roxton scoffed. "Not hurt?" He turned to the men he had just led. They ambled a few steps to the left or right. Only Challenger, Malone and Veronica remained beside him. "What's the matter with you people? We just came back with the Williams child."
"You went into the demon's lair and none touched you," came a voice.
"You don't even have a scratch."
Cyrus diverted the attention back to Marguerite. "Witch!" he proclaimed.
"No," her friends chorused.
Three men grabbed Roxton, jerking his rifle from his hands. Cyrus smiled. "If he's your servant then the fire won't harm him."
"What?" Marguerite screeched.
The bonfire still burned in the center of town.
"Place his hand in the fire. If it does not blister then she is protecting him."
"That's ridiculous," Challenger shouted.
Penn confronted Cyrus. "This man just helped us."
"He was doing evil's bidding!" Cyrus studied Marguerite as they dragged Roxton closer to the bonfire. He had locked her into but a single choice. Her eyes followed Roxton.
"No, Marguerite!" He saw in it in her face. He saw the words forming on her lips. "No, Marguerite!"
"Don't hurt him," she begged.
"This is your fault!" Cyrus's hulking frame dwarfed her.
"Don't hurt him!"
"No, Marguerite!" He was a foot from the fire. One of the men held his hand out.
"I'm a witch."
The reverend rushed to her side. "Do you confess to the crime of witchcraft?"
"Move him away from the fire."
"Do you confe..."
"Move him away from the fire!"
Cyrus nodded to his men. They released Roxton.
"Yes, I am a witch. Don't hurt him."
Cyrus snatched up her rifle from the ground and slung it over his shoulder. Grabbing her arm, he marched Marguerite to the jail. She looked over her shoulder. Roxton stood panting near the fire, looking from his hands to her. She mouthed something to him, but she was too far for him to be sure what it was. He settled on what he would have said to her.

***************

"Well, what are we going to do?" Malone winced as Veronica tied the bandage.
"Well, let's see," Roxton continued pacing as he had since they closed them in Penn's cottage. "They took our rifles and pistols. They have guards at the one door and only window. I'd say our options are limited."
Penn watched Challenger carve the letter A on Malone's toy block. "We wait until the moon has set." He kicked up the cloth scrap rug in front of the basin. There was a trap door. "Miranda wanted a root cellar. I wanted a back door. This comes out directly behind the jail."

***************

It was a tight squeeze, loose dirt dropping over both of them with each movement. Veronica bumped into him. "Sorry," she coughed. "Any sign of the end to this thing?"
Roxton swore an oath, cutting his hand on another tree root. The old roots acted as scaffolding holding up the ground. "It ends in another 3 yards. It better go up. I don't think I can crawl backwards in the thing."
Spitting dirt with every twist, Roxton rolled onto his back. In another few minutes he was sitting up, his head hitting wood. Hesitantly, he eased up the covering. It was hinged and opened to the back of a rain barrel. Roxton lifted himself out, then Veronica.
"You be back here in fifteen minutes, Veronica," he whispered. "Whether you've got all those herbs or not."
The woman stretched, feeling at ease in her usual outfit. "I'm getting them all, Roxton. Ned's wound is already infected."
He flashed a sympathetic smile. "Just hurry it up, will you?"
The shutter with the hole was exactly where Penn had described it, only a piece of cloth was wedged in to block out the night's cold. Gently he pushed it in. The room was dark, a bit of light snaked in from somewhere, probably the office in front. Miranda set on a bench in front of him. Judith lay next to her, sleeping, wrapped in two blankets, her head in her mothers lap. Marguerite had to be to one side of the boarded- up window.
"I heard what you did, Marguerite."
A strangled laugh came from his left.
"You must love him very much."
"Yes," she admitted in a soft voice.
"Glad to hear it," Roxton whispered.
"John," she breathed, whirling around, seeing his fingers struggle through the hole. "It's about time you showed up to get us out of here."
"Not so fast, Marguerite." Her fingers clutched his. "Malone's wound is getting infected. He just can't up and run out of this place. Besides if I removed these shutters, I'd wake everyone in the village and they might start shooting."
"Well, shoot back," Marguerite hissed. "And be sure you hit a few."
"As tempting as that sounds, they took our weapons."
"Pity. What's the plan?"
"Malone's health first. Veronica's gone out for some herbs to get rid of the infection. There's got to be a trial and by then we'll have come up with something."
"I heard Cyrus speaking with his father." Miranda slid Judith aside and joined Marguerite at the window. "There will be no trial. Marguerite's confession is all they need. Tomorrow is the Sabbath and they won't desecrate it by taking a life. But at midnight, they will burn all the witches." Her voice lowered. "Including the child."
"What!"
"Keep your voice down, Marguerite." Roxton glanced back at the dark cloaked cottages. "This puts a new slant on it."
"I would think so."
"Here's Veronica." Gently he pulled her fingers through and kissed them. "We'll be back."
Suddenly a cold wind shot through the hole in the shutter. "John," she whispered.

***************

"Oh, this is turning out nicely." Challenger chopped up the last of the root and mixed it in.
"I need you to sit still, Ned."
Malone took a deep breath. "You only say that when it's going to hurt."
Veronica's characteristic half-smile formed on her face. "All right, big boy, this is going to hurt. A lot." Unwrapping the cloth bandage, she paused where the blood had dried onto the cloth. "Like I said. A lot." With one hard jerk the cloth came off. So did any scabbing. The bleeding commenced immediately. Malone's eyes clinched shut and he fell back against the chair.
Roxton placed his hands on his shoulders to steady him. "Easy, Malone."
"Hey, the lady was right. It hurt. A lot."
Veronica held the poultice against the wound for thirty minutes.
"Okay," Challenger glanced at his pocket watch. "That should do it." He slid the timepiece across the table to a very curious Penn. After a close inspection of the wound, Challenger nodded. "I wish Marguerite was here to sew it up. But it looks like most of the swelling has gone down. Let's keep the poultice there for another thirty minutes."
"Five thirty-six," Penn announced, reading the small numbers carefully. "We should all try and get some rest. Cyrus or his father won't show their faces here until after church."
"And I'm sure the Reverend will whip them into a good witch burning frenzy," Malone snarled.
"Yes, he will." Penn's chin fell against his chest. "I can only hope someone talks him into releasing Judith."
"I don't think so." Roxton shoved his hands in his pockets and paced. "Reverend Pike isn't in charge here. Cyrus is. And he wants you out of the village with no reason to return. Monday morning he'll return our weapons to us and send us on our way. His father will think he's done us a great service by finding and destroying the witch. Hell, he'll probably even give us the cloth we came to trade for."
Malone exhaled sharply as Veronica readjusted the poultice on his arm. "We'll get everything but Marguerite's rifle and most of the ammunition."
The lines in Veronica's face changed from worry to surprise. "Are you saying this was all to get a rifle?"
"I think so. He knew he couldn't take mine or Roxton's or Challenger's without a fight. And he might lose. The Salem witch trials amounted to little more than land wars."
"Salem witch trials?" Veronica questioned.
"I'll explain later."
Veronica nodded. Gone were the days of reading his journals for explanations. Now they set on the balcony and talked. It was nicer.
"Burn her." Roxton poked the fire. It's flames leapt up to meet the kettle hanging over it. The leftover stew inside was a sickly shade of white.
Challenger watched him. He knew they'd have to give him a plan or something soon or he'd go off half-cocked and get himself killed. The man understood. He couldn't let Marguerite die like that either.

***************

Penn noted Challenger's timepiece read eight o'clock. In an hour the church bell would call for its congregation.
Challenger had replaced Roxton pacing in front of the fire.
The English lord sat hunched in a chair at the table. His fingers played absently with something, a handkerchief or something. Whatever it was, Challenger knew it was something of Marguerite's. He glanced at the pocket watch on the table. A picture of Jessie and a lock of her hair were secreted away in one side.
A faint echo of bells drifted into the cottage.
"How's the arm, Malone?" Roxton's hoarse voice broke the silence.
"I'll live."
"Can you fight?"
"Tell me when."
Challenger slammed the water pitcher on the table. "And what will that get us?"
"I won't let her die like that, George."
Challenger opened his mouth to argue. He stopped as an idea came to him. His eyes widened as he rapidly turned it over in his mind, carefully considering every aspect. Yes, that might possibly work! He paused a moment more, as he thought about what might happen if it didn't work. But he had little choice; he had to try. "Where's my pack?"
"It's over here, Professor." Veronica fetched it from the corner.
He produced several small jars with various bugs crawling on the sides. There was a small pouch he dumped on the table. "Be here." Another small bag and its contents were dumped. "Please be here." From the very bottom he retrieved a large leather wrapped box. His whole body relaxed in relief. "Here it is."
Folding back the leather, Challenger gingerly opened the box. Several darts were tied together in a waxed topped vial. Two small leather pouches lay side-by-side. The explorers recognized the darts.
"Curare?" Roxton scrunched his face in confusion. "You carry curare?"
"Mostly to settle down some of my more nervous specimen. Can't have them hurting themselves in the jars before I get them back to the lab."
"That's great, Professor. What good is that going to do us? There aren't enough darts for all of Pike's men."
Roxton snarled, "I'd like to get one of those in Cyrus' neck."
Challenger weighed one of the pouches in his hand then slowly opened it. "Not Cyrus. If there's enough: Marguerite, Judith, and Miranda."
"I want to rescue them, Challenger. Not save them from the pain of being burned alive," Roxton's voice broke.
"John." Challenger stood, laying his hands on Roxton's shoulders. "Hear me out. All of you. Unless Penn and his family want to come live with us, we need to resolve this without killing and on a level that the villagers will understand and accept."
"If I have to kill..."
"Roxton. Let him finish," Veronica snapped.
"We need to 'cure' our three accused witches. There is no trial, so being judged innocent is impossible. We need to have them dispossessed."
"An exorcism?" Penn asked.
"Well, we can't really do that since they aren't possessed. But we can, oh what did Finn say, fake them out."
Malone gingerly stretched his arm, testing his muscles. "You lost me, Professor."
"We've got to have a demon leave their bodies."
Penn shook his head confused. "But my wife, my daughter aren't possessed."
"And neither is Marguerite. We're going to make it seem like a demon has left their body."
"How?" The journalist in Malone always wanted all the answers.
"I think our time will be best served by doing, Ned." He scrutinized the jars and bowls in the small kitchen. "You wouldn't have a bit of gun powder about the house?" "They took my main supply."
Malone chuckled. "Your main supply." "I'll need whatever you can find, Penn." Challenger scratched at his auburn beard. It was longer than he liked it. "The hardest task will be to erase Marguerite's birthmark temporarily. How large would you say it was, Roxton?"
The man suddenly looked embarrassed. "About a three inch square."
"Indeed. After this is over I think I'd like to see these 'snakes'." His attention focused on Penn. "Does Miranda clean her own wool?"
"Yes."
"She has small barrels of lye and pine tar behind the cottage."
"Excellent. I need the lye. Veronica, ask our guard if we may get a cup to -er- clean Malone's wound." The scientist considered the small drop of curare sap in the pouch. "I just hope there's enough for all three of them."

***************

"A last meal. How thoughtful." The narrow opening at the bottom of the door slid closed. Marguerite retrieved the tray and set it on a small stool in front of her cellmates. "This doesn't look so bad." It was her voice she reserved for speaking to young children and most men. "What do you think, Miranda?"
The woman tasted it and smiled. "Try some, Judith."
The girl looked away from her mother, dropping her head into her lap and hiding her face.
"Truth be known, the broth was too watery." With a shrug Marguerite returned it to the floor by the door.
The blanket piece in the shutter's hole fluttered down to the floor. Marguerite stumbled over her own feet getting to the window. "Roxton?"
"This has to be quick." He passed through a pouch and cloth. "Get Miranda to rub this solution on your birthmark. Challenger said this should fad it enough to be hard to see at night."
"That's it?" she snapped.
"We've a plan, Marguerite. Just be ready. Your part is easy. All you have to do is die."
"Excuse me?"
"Penn said when the three of you wake up, you pretend not to remember anything of the past few days. You won't know Miranda or anyone here. It's important, Marguerite."
"Fine. But I want a promise from you." She took a long breath. "Miranda and I have talked about it. If your plan fails, Roxton, we don't want to burn to death."
"Marguerite, it'll work. Have you ever known any of George's plan to fail?"
"I thought you said you had to hurry."
He leaned his forehead against the cold wood. "Just don't ask ..."
"You have to shoot us."
There was along pause.
"As you command, my countess."
His fingers strained to reach her through the narrow opening. Marguerite stooped slightly so he touched her cheek.
"I'm sorry to ask you, John."
"If I have to do.... Will you always love me?"
"I will always love you, John Roxton." She kissed the calloused fingers before they disappeared.
Miranda slid her arms around her friend.
"He'll keep his word," Marguerite whispered.
"He strikes me as a man that will follow you anywhere."
The impact of words shattered what was left of her strength. Marguerite allowed herself to cry softly so as not to awaken Judith.

****************

"Who's that?" Roxton eased the door open a little more.
Penn looked over Roxton's head. "The man arguing with Cyrus?"
"Yes."
"That's the oldest brother, Andrew. He'll inherit the church from his father. Earlier I noticed him going to the jail."
"I think Brother Andrew doesn't believe in witches."
"Andrew is primarily responsible for strangers being welcome into the village. He recognized the need for change."
Roxton smiled tightly. "Maybe it's time we instituted some more change. Maybe we should give this Andrew the credit for exorcizing demons."
Penn gave a single nod. "I believe you're right."
With Veronica's threats ringing in everyone's ears, Malone removed his arm from the sling. "I just feel like we need a weapon of some sort."
Roxton laughed as Malone hefted the wooden bowl on the table then through narrow eyes contemplated a fork by the basin.
"Maybe I can help this time." Penn disappeared into his bedroom then returned with a long thin chest. The wood was well oiled and the lock on the front was new. "Judith is into everything," he explained. From the top shelf he pulled down a key. "If I have a son this will be his. Or it may pass to a grandson as it did with me." He opened the chest to reveal a tomahawk. Beneath it were several bone knives, still sharp.
"Your great great grandfather was the Indian warrior from the church record?" Challenger guessed resisting the urge to touch anything until it was offered.
Malone asked first. "May I?"
Veronica reached around him and picked up the tomahawk. Like the knife throwing expert she is, the woman moved her grip down the handle looking for the balance point. "Whoa. This is incredible workmanship." Smirking at Malone, she teased, "Do you even know how to throw one of these?"
"I saw Wild Bill Hickock's Wild West Show as a kid. And I am the only American around here."
"American with a wounded arm."
"And thank goodness for it," Challenger grinned. "Put the sling back on, Ned. We can fit the tomahawk and one knife in there."
"It is ten minutes before midnight," Penn announced, his fascination with Challenger's pocket watch not waning.
Malone slid back on the sling. Veronica tucked the tomahawk and two of the knives around his arm. "Be careful," she warned assessing her work. "Those knives are very sharp."
Roxton shut the door and made a dash for a chair. "Everyone ready?"

***************

Marguerite's shoulder still felt like it was fire. Hopefully it wasn't a precursor of things to come.
Cyrus and two of his men marched them out. Judith lay half-asleep in her mother's arms. Miranda saw her husband and stiffened. Her eyes softened, but not her resolve. "Do you have any guess as to what they have planned?" she whispered to her fellow witch.
Marguerite searched for Roxton in the crowd. "Not a clue." She stopped, seeing the bonfire in the town square. No other light shown through the village. The intense heat distorted the faces around them. "Aren't you supposed to be tied to a pole?"
"We throw you in." Cyrus hissed in her ear. "If you run out we throw you in again. Over and over."
Marguerite felt her knees weaken. Then she saw Roxton. He paralleled her as they approached the huge fire. The crowd parted allowing the witches through to the flames.
Veronica burst out of the audience. A lantern in front of her, she made for Andrew Pike then dropped to her knees before him. "Please, Reverend Pike. No one has tried to banish the demons from them. Please try! Please!"
Challenger rushed next to her. "Try Reverend. Surely your faith..."
"I have prayed with them." Reverend Pike, his father, tugged at his son's arm. "The prayers went unheeded. They are unrepentant."
"Perhaps," Challenger urged, "the demon was too strong in them. Now that it faces fire it might abandon their bodies and free their souls."
"We should try anything, father." He was as tall as his father and as thin, but his features must have favored his mother. When Andrew Pike smiled, it was genuine. "Bring me Miranda Penn."
Marguerite took Judith from her. Miranda knelt before the young man. "Miranda, I cast the demon from you!"
Challenger took her by the shoulders. The too small darts tucked in his gloved hand pierced her neck. The woman swayed. She called for her husband before collapsing on the ground. Veronica rolled a small lit firecracker next to her. It popped loudly. All the villagers drew away as smoke rose from around her.
Andrew dropped next to her and lifted her arm. He felt for a pulse. "She is dead."
"No," Penn shouted pushing his way through. "Call her back, Andrew!"
"Mi-Miranda."
Penn took his wife in his arms. "Miranda!" Covering her face with his, he slipped his hand over her mouth and poured in the antidote from a tiny pouch in his palm.
Seconds later Miranda Penn coughed herself back to life.
"Reverend Pike, you did it!" proclaimed Challenger.
Roxton and Malone roamed the crowd. "Andrew Pike banished the demon!"
"Gregory, what has happened?" It was easy to act dazed and confused. She touched his lips with her hand. "Truly, what has happened?"
He kissed her.
"Let me steady her while you see to Judith." Williams handed his son to his wife and put an arm around Miranda's waist.
Judith screamed when Challenger took her from Marguerite. Their assurances went unheeded. Challenger stood her in front of Andrew, his hand poised over her shoulder with a single dart.
"Judith, I banish the demon from you."
The child screamed when the needle pricked. Quickly she crumpled to the ground. Still on her knees Veronica rolled another firecracker beneath her.
The crowd screamed as the smoke and the "demon" rose. They applauded madly when the young child awoke in her father's arms.
The show had inched closer to the fire. It's huge flames colored everyone in shades of red or black. The villagers tightened their circle as Andrew approached Marguerite. Andrew's father pushed him aside and confronted Marguerite. "Those two were merely your minions. You are the witch."
With Veronica at his side, Challenger positioned himself behind her. "Get on your knees, girl," he ordered harshly.
Marguerite dropped to the hard ground. She fought to hide the contempt welling up for Pike. Challenger laid his hands on her shoulders.
Pike had to save face. "This witch is powerful. The demon in her is strong. It's evil deep."
"Kill me already, George," Marguerite muttered.
"I must search in myself for all the strength of my faith." His chest heaved. "Woman, I banish the demon from you."
Marguerite felt the dart pricks. She lurched forward. Her muscles tightened. But her eyes opened to see Reverend Pike, red faced in his anger. "Witch!" He leapt to his feet. "She has embraced the demon and will not release it. Witch!" "Burn her!" erupted from the crowd.
Veronica's eyes widen at Challenger. "There wasn't enough!"
Roxton elbowed his way through the crowd.
"Burn her!"
"No, it's just taking longer on her." He looked frantically about for Roxton. "It'll work!"
Cyrus and a crony grabbed up Marguerite by her legs and arms.
"Burn her!"
Marguerite's lips numbed. Her throat felt as though it was closing. She forced out his name. "Roxton!"
The two men held her over their heads as they approached the fire.
"Roxton!" She struggled to see him in the crowd.
"Marguerite!" John Roxton finally reached the edge of the crowd.
Challenger grabbed his shoulders. "It's just taking longer."
"Let me by, George."
"Roxton," Veronica locked onto him.
The man saw his rifle ten feet to his left. One of Cyrus's men had it swung from this shoulder. Malone appeared at his side. From his sling, he readied a knife to pass him.
"Roxton!" The sudden heat from the fire covered her in sweat. "Roxton," she sobbed, but her voice was weak. Her twisting in their grasp all but stopped.
"Steady, man," Challenger urged.
"God forgive you, witch!" Reverend Pike shouted. Cyrus held Marguerite's limp body over his head.
"Challenger, if this doesn't work I'll..." Whether toward Challenger or the village or just Cyrus, the threat went unspoken.
"Wait!" screamed Andrew. Rushing up to his brother, he lifted her from him. "The demon is gone, you fool." He stared into her still features. "She is gone."
Roxton sprinted forward. Taking her from Andrew, he collapsed to his knees. Challenger leaned over him. "Hurry, John."
Covering her face with his, he slipped the antidote past her lips.
"Wake up, my love," Roxton pleaded.
Andrew knelt beside him, folding his hands for a prayer. "Perhaps we are too late."
Only the fire cackled in the night.
Marguerite's body spasmed. Twisting to her side, she began to cough. "That wasn't funny," she wheezed.
Roxton combed the black hair from her face. "No, it wasn't." Laughing with relief, he kissed her forehead. "No, it wasn't at all."
"My good woman, are you all right?"
Roxton pinched her to remind her. "Do I know you? Roxton, where are we?"
Andrew took her hand. "My dear, you have been through hell."
"Haven't we all," agreed Malone.
"Step away from her, Andrew!" The crowd parted revealing Cyrus Pike, aiming Marguerite's rifle. "She's deceived you! She is a witch!"
Marguerite struggled to her feet. "No, you are the deceiver if you call me witch." She held onto Roxton as her legs slowly regained control.
"Witch!" Cyrus bellowed.
"If I am a witch, then shoot me. Go ahead. God will protect me. You will be the only one hurt." The crowd backed away. Marguerite tried to pull away from Roxton. His grip on her tightened.
Reverend Pike rushed to his second son, frantically attempting to reason with him.
"John, you don't need to risk your life."
"I'm not budging from this spot."
"Don't go throwing yourself in front of the bullet."
"Marguerite, at this range that bullet will go through whichever of us into the other. Trust me I know."
"You're a stubborn man, John Roxton," she laughed through the tears threatening.
"I love you. And I'll always be there with you. Dirty job or not." He pressed his cheek against her hair. "Time for the coup de grace." Turning Marguerite around, he tore the back of her blouse down. "She is no witch!" proclaimed Roxton. The birthmark was gone.
"Cyrus," Andrew called. "To harm this woman now would be to inflict harm on the innocent."
"Innocent," Roxton whispered into her ear, holding her tighter.
"For the moment."
"Drop the gun," Andrew ordered.
"Witch!" He took aim holding the weapon close to his face.
Roxton's arms tightened around her. Bracing his feet and locking his legs, he laid his cheek against her hair and remembered why he loved her.
"Witch!" The rifle fired. Smoke poured out the end. Pine tar exploded onto his face. Pieces of the grip splintered into his hand. But no bullet was fired.
"I am no witch!" Marguerite screamed.
Hands over his face, Cyrus Pike crumpled to his knees screeching in pain.
"What the hell?" Roxton sputtered. Pushing her behind him, he dared anyone to come toward them. Miranda and Judith darted behind them into the cottage. Penn tossed him his rifle. Roxton aimed it at Cyrus Pike.
Andrew snatched the blackened rifle from his brother. "You shame us, your family, your village, and especially yourself."
The Reverend and his wife went to their son. Those who had condemned Marguerite turned their ire on Cyrus now.
Marguerite's fingers dug into his arms. "I am no witch," she whispered behind him.
Malone, Challenger, and Veronica ran to their side. Williams handed them rifles and remained beside them with his own musket.
"John," Challenger couldn't bring himself to raise his rifle against these people. "Let's get out of sight. Penn and Williams can handle things from here."
He felt Marguerite lean all her weight against him. "You stayed with me."
Wrapping his arm around her, he kissed her forehead and whispered, "I'll always stay with you. When are you going to get that through your thick head?" He kissed her forehead again.

***************

They stayed another three days, giving Malone time to recuperate. On the morning of departure, they were as laden down as when they had arrived. Veronica's pack had apples and apple vinegar. Challenger had a container of lye. And everything was packed with cloth. Some of the other women in the village had pressed Miranda to share their cloth with the strangers.
"Enough new shirts for a couple of years," Challenger acknowledged.
Andrew Pike waved them down. "Before you leave, I just wanted to say thank you. Again. I'm not sure why. I believe neither you, Mistress Marguerite, nor Penn's family were witches. And I know you believe this as well. So I can but say to you: bravo. I'm sure Gregory mentioned my father is retiring. My first act will be to reinstate Gregory as constable and then I think I will separate the offices of church and mayor. I believe Jamison Williams would be an interesting choice for town mayor."
Roxton nodded. His smile was brief. "I think he'd be a fine choice."
Andrew glanced at Penn. "After these past few days, I recognize they should be mutually exclusive." He shook all their hands and trotted back to the main road.
Malone chuckled. "I think that man is going to write a constitution."
"What about Cyrus?" Veronica asked.
Penn let out a long sigh. "That pine tar burnt what his father has called a mark of Cain on his forehead. His family will tend to him. They have land several miles to the west. He'll probably go there."
Challenger stepped forward. "Penn, I don't think the apemen - er - demons are going away too quickly. Your fields are like a feeding troth to them. There's a chance with the first snow fall they may move south, but with the spring?" The scientist shrugged.
"You have taught us much about these apemen and I'm sure we can keep them at bay."
Penn turned and joined his family near the church. They waved good-bye. The forest quickly engulfed them.
"Oh, wait-a-minute." Veronica whirled around and called for Penn. They were already out of earshot. "Darn. I'm going to make a map for the Zanga and I never heard the name of the village."
"And I don't want to know," Malone snorted. "Cause if it's Jamestown and I've got another story of a lifetime that I can't write, well, I think I would just bust. Or look for the nearest cliff. Or give up writing."
"Well at least it's downhill from here, Ned," Marguerite smiled.

***************

As always the tree house looked the same. It was dusk when they arrived. No one had the energy to put anything away so a big stack of packs and hats and jackets grew by the elevator.
"I'll make a big breakfast in the morning, I promise." Malone crossed his heart. "But right now if I don't get to my bed, someone's going to have to drag me there."
Veronica grabbed the first aid kit from the counter and followed. "I want a look at that arm, Ned Malone."
Marguerite leaned against the table. "I'm sure Ned is sorry to hear she's only going after his arm."
Challenger emitted his old married man harrumph and disappeared down to his lab.
Roxton laid Marguerite's charred and tar coated rifle on the table. From a shelf, he retrieved his tools and oil and cloths.
"You're not seriously going to clean that now, are you?"
"The way we go through weapons, Marguerite, everyone counts." He raised his eyebrows and frowned. "I've got enough spare pieces I can repair it. And besides, since you won't tell me what you did, I'm going to find out for myself."
Marguerite gave a weary sigh. "Truth?"
Roxton set aside his cleaning cloths. "That would be nice."
"I'm not sure what I did. I just wanted to prevent him from using the rifle. I-I knew Pike wanted it. I honestly thought he was simply going to steal it. I was afraid once he got it he'd use it on Gregory."
"You still haven't told me what you did," he prodded.
"Well, Miranda had a huge box of ash she used to make lye. I poured some down the barrel then I followed that with the pine tar. Once he took Miranda, he could have come and arrested Veronica and me for indecent cleaning. I was in a hurry. I might have added some lye. Shook it a little. It hardened." Shrugging, she chewed on her lower lip.
Roxton winced. "Marguerite, I may never get that gunk out of the barrel. Or get the trigger rebuilt."
"I think, Roxton, when Cyrus tried to shoot it, most of the 'gunk' came out."
"All over him." Roxton's smile was short lived. "And what if you had needed to use it?" He thought back on looking down the barrel of that gun. "And what if that trick of yours didn't work?"
An intense gaze settled in Marguerite's eyes.
Roxton glanced away, always apprehensive of her dark eyes and what they said.
"You stayed with me. That bullet could have killed us both."
Roxton still couldn't look at her. "That bullet would have killed us both. One similar to it went through a great ape and a man." Nervously he pulled something from his pocket.
"What do you have there?" she teased.
A boyish grin crossed his features. "Mistletoe."
Marguerite shuddered. "I never want to see that stuff again."
"Now, Marguerite, it wasn't the plant's fault."
"Uh, huh, and..."
Roxton held the mistletoe over their heads and kissed her lightly.
"Well."
"Well, what?"
"Pick a berry or it'll be bad luck."
Roxton plucked one off and tossed it.
"How many berries are still there?" she asked, twisting his wrist, trying to count for herself.
"About a dozen."
Pushing him back in his chair, Marguerite slid onto his lap and kissed him. It was several minutes before the next berry was plucked.