Roxton strained to keep the log in place as Ned hammered in wooden spikes to secure it to the surrounding logs.
"I want you to head back to the treehouse. Get Challenger and Veronica. Tell them what happened. Maybe he can think of a way to free her."
"Blasted useless!" Roxton threw it to the ground in frustration. He couldn't understand why they were unable to free her. It was just mud! Wasn't it?
Ned laid a hand on his fellow distraught explorer. "I'll get Challenger. He'll have her free in seconds and then we'll all laugh at how easy it was." He didn't bother asking what Roxton was going to do. Without a doubt, the man would not leave Marguerite's side. The reluctant Lord and the displaced heiress had grown perceptibly closer during their time on the plateau. Ned knew if something had happened to Veronica, he wouldn't leave her side either.
"I'll return soon," he assured him.
"Make it fast." Roxton's face still held a great deal of trepidation. The crack in the dam was bad and he knew it. He was no engineer but he understood the dangers of such things. It wouldn't be long before the stress took its toll. They had to free Marguerite before that. The size of the stream bank showed that the water level would be above her head if the dame broke.
"I'll be back as quick as I can."
With that, Ned ran into the jungle and disappeared into its green. Roxton made his way solemnly back to Marguerite, offering up a quick prayer to whatever god might be listening. Please let there be time.
Marguerite stood shivering in the water. The cold was creeping up her legs in a flurry of pins and needles. She could barely feel anything from her thighs down. Was it her imagination or was the current getting stronger? A ripple effect was surrounding her, an indication that the water was picking up speed for some reason. She wasn't overly concerned. When Roxton returned, she'd mention it to him.
An attempt to wiggle her toes only brought blinding pain. Needles of ice stabbed at her. She couldn't even tell if they were moving or not.
Where the hell was Roxton?
There was a part of her that was relieved he was staying behind with her. With him, she felt almost invincible sometimes. Her brain and his brawn were more than match for most, enough to vanquish any opponent and work their way out of any dreadful situation.
Their continued survival on this godforsaken plateau was testament to that fact. There didn't seem to be anything that they couldn't handle together. Though she would never confess such a thing to him. To any of them really. The small group had become extensions of one another, each lending their expertise to every problem. And they cared for each other, for her, something she had never expected, but found comforting nonetheless.
She heard Roxton returning and caught a glimpse of his dour expression, right before it changed to a half smile when he saw her watching him. It immediately set off alarms in Marguerite.
Lord John Roxton was not one who covered his feelings well. He wore them emblazoned on his sleeve for all to see but him. Deception wasn't in his nature. He was too bloody honorable.
She looked again at the rushing water and her gaze traveled upstream toward the dam. The cold crept farther up her body till it settled in her stomach.
The water was rising.
Roxton waded out to her, ignoring the protests of his nearly frozen legs. Marguerite had it much worse right now. In the time he been gone, he noticed the water level was already higher. He debated about going back to the dam to see what else could be done, but he doubted he could do much more than Ned. And driving more spikes into the cracking wood would only offer the water more pressure points to manipulate. His best bet would be to keep trying to free Marguerite.
He had retrieved a long sturdy stick, which he hoped to drive down into the mud near one of Marguerite's trapped feet. If he could create some space between the mud and her leg, she should come free. Using his knife, he had sharpened the end for ease of penetration into the sediment.
As he approached it was obvious Marguerite had realized something was wrong. In truth, he had never doubted she would. The woman was intelligent beyond measure. He only regretted it this time because it would heighten her fear.
"It might not," he told her honestly. "When Challenger and the others arrive, we'll have you free in a second."
"And if not?"
"You will be. I swear it."
She reveled a moment in his conviction. It was that determination that had always gotten them through. It was as if he didn't know what defeat was, or maybe it was the fact that he had lost two people already under his charge: his brother William and dear sweet Summerlee. A part of him had died with each of them. She could tell by the way he stood he wasn't about to add another name to the roll. It comforted her. A small part of her believed it. She refused to die in such a pathetic way. Not in a mud hole. She was destined for a far better fate than that.
She nodded toward his tools. "What's the stick for?"
He knelt in the water and positioned the stick close to her leg while he explained his new plan. It sounded reasonable.
"Tell me if I hurt you."
She doubted she would be able to tell, her legs were so cold. He had brought the axe back with him and used the head to pound the stick into the mud. With each whack, the stake embedded itself slightly into the sediment. Roxton paused every couple of whacks to wiggle it around, trying to keep the silt loose and create the precious space necessary for Marguerite to get free.
But as he drove it deeper in, it became more and more difficult to move. He strained to loosen it from the mud's grip, but only succeeded in snapping the stick in half.
He cursed loudly and colorfully. Marguerite's hope fell quickly. The adventurer kicked at the stick in vexed frustration, his fury at his failure consuming him, until Marguerite touched his arm. He looked up at her with shame-filled eyes. He had failed her again.
"It's alright. It was a good idea. It just didn't work." His desperate anger worried her. It was fed by fear. Fear for her. "Let's think of something else."
He sagged defeatedly. "I just don't know what to do. I don't understand why I can't free you." Breathing in a deep calming breath, he knew she didn't have an answer for him. He nodded to her pocket. "You don't think that stone in your pocket is cursed, do you? Maybe you should put it back."
Marguerite became indignant. "There is no possibility that this miniscule little rock is cursed. It was spit up out of that hole in the ground and then buried here in the mud. It was free for the taking."
"Regardless, maybe you should put it back."
"I will not! Since when have you become so superstitious, Lord Roxton?"
"Since every bloody day we wind up fighting some strange magic or some horrid curse. I say, better safe than sorry."
"And I say, you're overreacting. This stone means nothing to anyone but me."
"How about we just test it? Put it in the water and let's see if we can pull you out."
"Is it? I think not. Not after all we've seen around here."
"It grabbed Malone too, you know, and he didn't take a stone from the water."
"Doesn't matter. All of us seem to pay for your transgressions, my dear."
Her eyes burned fire at the accusation. "I refuse to fuel your ever growing superstitions. It's not healthy."
"It will be considerably less healthy for you," he pointed out. "Are you telling me you still don't believe in all you've seen here?"
"No. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that's not the case this time."
He raised a determined eyebrow at her and held out his hand.
Her frown remained, but she dug out the rock from her pocket and slammed it into Roxton's hand, hard enough for him to wince slightly. "Here! Appease the gods!"
He carefully kept the look of triumph from his face as he tossed the gem into the water where it probably belonged. It glittered all the way to the bottom.
In a most mocking way, Marguerite thought.
"Try it now," Roxton urged.
She tried again to move her legs without success. A glare was all she spared Roxton as he shrugged at her.
"It was worth a try." He maneuvered behind her, grabbing her firmly around the waist and heaved back. However, the mud was not yet willing to release its prize. After fifteen minutes of fruitless effort, they gave up, exhausted and breathless. Roxton hung over his submerged knees, trying to regain his strength. He glanced sidelong at her. "You're going to make me go find it now, aren't you?"
Arms folded sternly across her chest, she stated, "Damn right."
He gave a submissive sigh. It was then he noticed that the water level was now up to Marguerite's hips and his thighs. Nervously, he checked the sky, determining that Ned hadn't been gone for even an hour yet. The water was rising faster now.
Marguerite noticed also. "How long before the others come?"
"Yes," he stated firmly, noticing the tremble in her lips. He tried to distract her. "You're cold."
"And you're exhausted. Go rest. It's not like I'm going anywhere." Roxton looked as frozen and haggard as she did. And he had been soaking in the chilly water for hours ahead of her. All this extra exposure had to have taken its toll.
He shook his head at her stubbornly. He pulled his feet again out of the cloying mud with more effort this time. He staggered slightly. Ignoring Marguerite's patronizing glance, he made a decision. "I'll be right back."
A few minutes later, he returned with the dry towels from their supplies as well as a blanket. He wrapped them around her shoulders.
"Thank you," she mumbled, clutching the ends tight around her. "What about you?"
She took one of the towels off and passed it to him. He was about to refuse but then took it from her hand. Their fingers touched and for the briefest of moments, entwined, icy cold and desperate for contact. He offered her a small, sad smile, which she returned. It was minutes before either of them let go.
"Now what?" she asked.
"Now we wait."
He nodded. "And pray."
Thirty minutes passed uneventfully as they counted the time till help arrived. They watched the water steadily rise till it climbed to her chest. It was getting more difficult for her to balance in the deep water, so he stood beside her to brace her, constantly shifting his feet to keep them free. He was bone weary, so much so that there were times he almost forgot and had to struggle to lift his feet from the hardening mud.
Marguerite was trembling all over now. The blanket's edges hung in the water and moisture had begun to seep up the cloth. Soon it would be useless. He wrapped his arms around her to ease the strain and to lend what body warmth he could. They had stopped talking and the silence between them was almost deafening.
Finally, Marguerite's faint voice broke the silence. "Promise me you won't let me die this way."
The fear in her tone devastated Roxton. He tightened his grip around her. "What kind of talk is that?" he whispered soothingly. "Challenger will be here any minute."
He glanced around the jungle. Where the hell is the man? It had been over an hour now and they were running out of time. He wracked his brain for some way to free her, but he just didn't have the proper tools and the mud was merciless.
"You are not going to die," he insisted as much to himself as to Marguerite.
"I want to believe you."
"Then do so." He gently let her go. "I'll keep digging. If we can just get down far enough we can free you."
"You tried that already."
"Then I'll try it again," he snapped. The anger in his voice hurt her, and her eyes showed it. He immediately regretted it, reaching out to touch her frozen cheek. "I'll get you out of here."
He swam back to the shore, keeping his head above the icy water, to retrieve the axe. It was the only tool he had at his disposal. He'd have to be completely under the water, which would greatly reduce his strength, and any leverage he could muster on the bottom would be dangerous.
He didn't care. He'd sacrifice his life if it meant she would be free. He turned back to the river when he heard the sound he had been dreading.
A loud crack rent the air and a roar echoed.
The dam had burst!
Roxton leaped back into the water and swam to her. She clutched at him.
"John! The dam!" Her gray eyes were wide with terror.
Just as he reached her side, debris rounded the bend, heading straight toward them in a jumbled mass, riding a wave that was at least a foot over both their heads.
Marguerite tried to push him away. "Save yourself!"
"I'm not going anywhere! Just hang onto me!"
She immediately obeyed, though she knew she wasn't going anywhere. Then she had a burst of inspiration. The force of the water might be strong enough to pull her from the mud, but she was so numb she knew she wouldn't be able to swim afterwards. Roxton was her only hope if that happened. Of course, it could also rip her legs right off at the knees, she thought morbidly. Her heart drilled against her breast, abject terror surging through her. She clung to him with frozen hands. He wrapped his strong arms around her, holding her close to his chest.
This was it.
Roxton looked behind him at the debris tumbling straight for them. Part of the cracked log was visible. It was twisted and torn. The stakes that Malone had driven in were sticking out like stubby obscene limbs. Still, there wasn't as much debris as he would have thought. That meant the whole dam hadn't broken, only a portion of it. Of course, that portion was large enough to kill them both.
He positioned himself so that he was between the rampaging mass and Marguerite. His last thought before it struck was that this was going to hurt.
The wall of water smashed into them, driving the air from their lungs, but his grip on Marguerite was fierce and secure. The wave lifted him from his stance on the bottom, threatening to cast him away. Muscles and bone groaned with the strain of keeping them together. The water swept over their heads; he lost all sense of which way was up. He could feel Marguerite's frantic grip around him, but he could tell the wave had not freed her from the streambed's hold.
When the wave hit, Marguerite's body was wrenched horribly from one side to the other. She made herself go as limp as possible, knowing that fighting was dangerous and would only hurt her more. To her dismay, the wave didn't have the strength to make the cursed mud relinquish its trophy.
Something glanced off Roxton's back, shoving him bodily into Marguerite and then dragging him from her grasp. He slipped through her numb hands, fighting desperately to reach out to her again. Still rooted, Marguerite realized that Roxton was being pulled from her. He was slipping away! With a desperate, flailing arm she reached out and snagged him.
Roxton felt something grab his belt and pull him back. Bless her! Marguerite had somehow held onto him. He wrapped his arms around her once again.
The water ebbed and slowed and the violent turbulence ended. The force of the water was abating, the main body of it already past them. He managed to find the bottom again and righted the two of them. The question was how deep was the water. He was about to straighten up when something slammed into his left shoulder and he felt a slight pressure rake down his arm. It shoved him again off his feet.
Water surged into his mouth as he was forced to exhale from the blow. The edges of his vision darkened and he fought it off. He concentrated on maintaining his hold on Marguerite. Panicked and disoriented, but determined as hell, he tried again to find the bottom and rise, hopefully bringing both of them up for air.
Blessed air filled his lungs as he broke the surface, the glare of the sun stabbing his eyes. He cried out in relief, tossing his head to get the hair and water out of his eyes. Then he pulled as best he could to get Marguerite up. His shoulder twinged but he ignored it. The pain really wasn't that bad. It must have been a glancing blow. He was damn lucky.
Marguerite's face came sputtering up above the rough water, but only barely. Another few inches and she would be completely submerged. She sobbed out his name, terror and exhaustion marking her distinctly.
"It's alright! I'm right here. We're okay!"
"You're safe. Shhh now." He held her firmly and kissed her cheek, soothing her terror as best he could.
There was salt on his lips as he brushed against her tears. It nearly shattered him. He hated seeing her like this. He was powerless to help her and it was tearing him up inside. He couldn't lose her, not like this. Despite all his strength and determination, he was helpless. He squeezed his eyes shut against his despair and fought the rising anger at his failure.
"J-john. I'm g-going to die, aren't I? There's n-not enough time." The cold had taken its toll. Her whole body was wracked by periodic convulsions.
"Stop it," he commanded. "You're not going to die!"
Marguerite's voice was calm and soft, frighteningly so. "Even if C-challenger was here, there isn't time to free me. I've only g-got another few moments before the water rises over...over…"
Roxton tightened his hold. "No more," he whispered, his cheek pressed against hers. "Don't give up, Marguerite." Releasing her suddenly, he stepped back, taking her face in his large, cold hands. "Listen to me. We're not finished yet. I've got an idea that will buy us some time. All right? But I have to leave you for a moment. Promise me you'll hang on! Promise me!"
She nodded, her large eyes brimming with salty tears. "You'll c-come back?"
His thumbs brushed aside the tears that fell. They were trembling as they did so. "It will only take a few minutes. Just keep your head above the water till then. I'll be right back. All right?"
Nodding a final time, she drew a deep, shaky breath. He leaned in and kissed her, gently and then more firmly, as if trying to transfer the remainder of his warmth and strength to her. Then he quickly turned and swam back to the shore.
The current was stronger now and it took more effort than before. It shoved him further downstream, and he had to struggle to reach the bank and haul himself out. His own body was wracked with terrible shakes from the cold conditions. No matter how hard he tried to wrest control back, he failed. His jaw ached abominably as he clenched his chattering teeth together to still them. There was a weakness in him that he tried to ignore, radiating from his shoulders down.
He drew his knife and worked at slicing through a small rod of bamboo, which he had noticed earlier. When it fought him, he cursed loudly and put his back into it, angrily wrestling with it. He almost cut himself. It seemed such a minor thing, but his strength was practically gone. It took far too much effort to even just lift his limbs.
Finally, it broke free. He almost collapsed over it, falling to one knee. Dragging himself up, he made sure the rod was hollow at both ends and formed a long tube. Satisfied and pleased that he had thought of this, he turned back to Marguerite, holding up the bamboo triumphantly.
She was nowhere to be seen.
He jammed the bamboo into his shirt and ran for the stream. His feet and legs were like lead; he stumbled to the ground twice in his panic before he dove out full length into the icy water.
He wasn't sure exactly where she was. The shoreline looked different suddenly now that the banks were swollen. But thankfully the water was clear. He caught a glimpse of her white blouse and used powerful, desperate strokes to reach her. Grabbing her with practically useless hands, he yanked her limp form upright.
As they broke the surface, he croaked out again, "Marguerite!"
There was no answer and she lay still in his arms.
Panic enveloped him. "Don't you do this to me! You hear me!"
He increased the pressure on her chest to force the water out of her lungs. He then swam around to face her. Grasping her face, he encircled her frozen lips with his own and breathed his barely warm breath into her. Three times.
He pulled back. "Come on! Breathe, Marguerite!" Terror drilled at his chest.
She remained still. He grabbed her around the waist and repeated his process. Once. Twice.
Abruptly, she coughed and water sprayed from her throat.
"That's it! That's it!" he shouted. Tears ran unabashedly down his face. "Good girl! Keep fighting!"
Her eyelids fluttered open to stare dazedly at him. "I-I'm c-cold," she muttered. "And s-so t-tired." The water bobbed right under her chin.
"I know, Marguerite. I know. But you can't g-give up yet? All r-right? You have to hold on. Please!"
"I'm t-trying. R-really I am."
He brushed back her hair with his calloused hands. "I know, love. Here look." He dug out the bamboo as he leaned her back against him. Her body shuddered violently against him and he readjusted his grip, knowing he had no way to keep her warm. His own body temperature was way too low.
"L-look," he told her, "you can use this to b-breathe through even if the water does rise any further. You just have to hang on a w-while longer. Challenger will be here any minute."
She tried to force her frozen lips into a weak smile, but failed as the tremors coursing through her prevented it. She closed her eyes, feeling hot tears spill from them. "I-I'm not s-sure I c-can."
"Damn it, M-Marguerite! You're stronger than this. All you have to do is s-stay with me."
"H-hell of a w-way t-to go, isn't it? G-guess my g-greed caught up w-with me."
"Nonsense. You p-put the rock b-back. R-remember?"
"You m-made me."
"Yes, but you wouldn't have normally. S-see, there is hope for you after all. You've come so far, M-Marguerite. It would be bad f-form to give up now."
His voice had deepened so that it reminded
Marguerite of his first year on the plateau when he was overly brusque and
stoic. It seemed like years ago now. It always deepened when he was plagued
with stress and emotion. She hadn't noticed it until later when he had lost it.
It was a sign he was healing. He had changed so much. It broke her heart to
know that her death would only serve to cast him back into the abyss that she
had unwittingly helped him crawl out of.
"S-someone has to be." He shifted again on fatigued legs as he tried to lift her higher out of the water, but found he couldn't. The water was only moments away from covering her mouth. Even now the waves cast water against her face so that she swallowed water every time she tried to speak. Panic surged within him and he tried to quell it. He couldn't watch her die like this. He couldn't!
"I-I want to t-tell you s-something, J-john. S-should have long a-go."
"Ssshh. S-save your s-strength."
Finally, he had a crashing in the jungle, coming nearer. "T-they're here," he told her. "Challenger!"
"C-could b-be a T-r-rex," she warned.
He offered a manic laugh. "T-there you g-go again. D-dooms-sayer."
"C-can't help it."
The jungle spat out Challenger and the rest. They were carrying an odd contraption between them. Roxton recognized the hand powered pump that Challenger had perfected in the first few months. The professor carried a long stick-like device with various holes in it.
"Hurry!" Roxton screamed at them.
"Oh no!" Veronica cried, seeing how precarious Marguerite's situation actually was.
"Come on!" Challenger led the way to the stream bank and shouted out orders. Ned and Veronica swiftly leapt to obey. The professor attached his stick to one end of the long hose that was connected by its other end to the pump. He grabbed another hose connected to the other side of the pump and handed it to Ned. "Go as far up stream as you can go and put this into the water, preferably by the source. We need to create a suction. Hurry!"
Challenger grabbed his long stick with the holes in it and jumped into the water. He was unprepared for how cold it was. He let out a shout and willed his heart to stop pounding. He made his way out to Marguerite and Roxton. Both of them were tinged with blue and shivering, obvious signs of hypothermia.
"C-challeng-ger, you have a p-plan, right?" Roxton demanded.
"The silt is ultra fine here since it comes up directly out of the ground. It compresses so fast and so hard, there is no way to escape it. We have to create a vacuum and disturb the sediment again." He held up his stick. "Using the pump, it will force water through these holes, blasting away at the sediment and hopefully I can drive it further into the ground around Marguerite's legs."
Ned came running back. "It's done! Now what?"
Veronica waved him over. "Help me operate this thing. The faster we can pump the more sediment will be moved."
The two young people grabbed the handles of the generator and cranked for all they were worth.
"Hang on, my dear," Challenger encouraged Marguerite.
After a few precious minutes, the stick in Challenger's hands shook to life, water spraying from the multiple holes. He jammed it down into the thick, crusted mud.
Roxton could feel the pressurized water pounding his legs. Unfortunately, the stream kept rising. Marguerite's mouth slipped beneath its waves. She was panicking. He helped her with the bamboo rod and she breathed desperately through it. The sound of her frantic breath sounded harsh in the cold air. "Hurry, C-challenger!" He was shaking badly as well; he couldn't hold onto her and the bamboo with any certainty.
The professor kept applying pressure, forcing the stick down further, but there was too much resistance. He craned his neck back to shout toward the shore. "Faster! We need to build up more pressure."
Ned and Veronica complied, forcing tired muscles to work harder. It had been difficult maneuvering through the jungle carrying the heavy equipment. But they shoved such things aside and broke their own levels of endurance in order to save a friend.
Challenger put his full weight on the device and felt it shudder its way down slowly into the mud, the pressured water forcing itself between the layers of compacted mud, loosening it. He twisted his head above the water line and shouted to Roxton. "Pull her left leg."
Roxton submerged and fumbled for the leg the Challenger was working on. Shoving his own feet down into the swirling mud, he heaved back, no longer caring what happened to himself. He had to save Marguerite. Nothing else mattered.
Whereas before no amount of pulling had succeeded in moving her, now suddenly there was give. A spark of hope! Roxton heaved back again and Marguerite's leg slipped free. He jerked back to the surface. "It w-worked! One leg's free!"
There were elated shouts from the shore. However, Roxton saw that Marguerite was completely submerged now and he couldn't see the bamboo rod any more. He scrambled frantically for her again. When he found her she was completely limp. "C-challenger! The other one! H-hurry!"
"Dear God!" The professor pulled the device free and moved it over to Marguerite's other leg. He repeated the process while Roxton hauled back on Marguerite. Painful long seconds passed as the two men worked to rescue the drowning heiress. The stillness in her drove Roxton to sheer madness as he wildly labored to free her last remaining trapped limb.
Then it was done! He fell back with Marguerite in his arms. Challenger, sensing success, dropped the device and grabbed her from him. He knew he had to get her to shore immediately and begin resuscitation. They had precious little time.
Ned realized their wild plan had worked and jumped into the water to assist. He helped Challenger drag Marguerite to the shore.
It was Veronica who noticed that Roxton was in trouble also. He wasn't able to fight the current any longer. She leaped into the water, and once over the initial shock of the stream's extreme temperature, swum out to help the floundering Roxton. His body was like a block of ice. He was still conscious but completely devoid of strength. He had used up his last reserves to free his beloved. If Veronica hadn't spied him, he would have slipped beneath the surface without a sound and been lost to them.
He looked at her glassily. "V-vero-ica? Wha r y-you doin here?"
He was slurring his words and disoriented. She gathered him in her arms and pulled him desperately from the mud; he didn't fight her. "I'm here to help, Roxton. Don't try to talk."
With strong sure strokes, she battled the current and reached the shore. She heaved him as far us as she could onto the bank. He lay there gasping for a moment, then he rallied and tried to rise. Only one word fell from his quivering lips.
Taking most of his waterlogged weight, she half dragged him over to where the others were working on the unmoving woman. "She's in good hands, Roxton. You did your part. Now let Challenger complete his."
She knew a little bit of the effects of extreme cold and knew they had to get both of them warmed up fast or all this work would be for nothing. The woods would afford them plenty of tinder and she left Roxton to go collect as much as she could.
With trembling arms, weak with cold and exhaustion that had plagued him for too many long hours, Roxton dragged himself the last few feet toward Marguerite. Challenger was breathing for her and then rolling her over to help expel the water that was again nesting in her lungs.
"Wur t-too l-late," Roxton whispered with dread. He hung his head, grief washing over him like a dark shroud. His fault, all his fault.
"Don't give up on her yet, old boy. She's strong," Challenger consoled. He intensified his efforts.
Another few chilling seconds passed until finally Marguerite threw up the water and began coughing.
"Excellent!" cried Challenger. He rolled her back. "Now we must get them warm. Hypothermia has set in. They're not out of the woods yet." He saw Veronica returning with an armload of wood. "Ned, start a fire, a large one. Veronica, you help me get them out of these clothes. You take Marguerite. Hurry now."
Marguerite and Roxton were caught in the terrible tremors that gripped such victims, making it difficult to strip them. But where perseverance failed, a sharp knife prevailed. Challenger had brought lots of thick blankets and wrapped both of them in their heavy wool folds. But he knew that wasn't enough. Roxton was slurring his words and Marguerite eyes were dilated, both advanced signs of hypothermia. The fire Ned made was roaring and generating lots of heat, but that only affected the outer layers. Both victims were cold to the core where the vital organs were. It was more critical to warm them and it had to be done quickly and the only solution was physical body warmth, meaning one on one contact.
Once explained, Veronica understood. She got under the covers with Marguerite and stripped out of her wet clothes. Pulling the shivering Marguerite to her, she held her tight. Challenger did the same for Roxton. The hunter, still conscious, tried to speak.
"P-pefect g-genlemen, eh G-george?"
"Absolutely, old man" Challenger suppressed a soft chuckle. It was a good sign that the hunter's sense of humor was intact.
Roxton was quiet a moment and then forced out a final question through his chattering teeth. "S-she all r-right?"
He tried to assure the younger man. "Yes, John. I believe so. Now rest. That's the only thing both of you can do."
"T-thak you…fo s-savin her."
With that the burly adventurer settled and his breathing evened out, marred only by his shuddering breath as his body continued to fight the cold.
Ned busied himself by making the fire large and intense. He heated water and soaked towels to place around his two sick friends in areas where he could heat the blood circulating to the heart and other organs faster. Slowly, their tremors began to ease, which was a very good sign. Color seeped back into their skin and their lips finally reverted back to a normal shade. Everyone began to relax. Another disaster had been avoided.
Challenger sighed. They had cut it close. Far too close. But he knew the pump and the contraption he had quickly rigged was the only means in which to free Marguerite. Once Ned described the situation, he had realized he had made an almost fatal blunder. The silt that was expelled by the underground stream was far too fine to support a large structure much less a human being. He cursed his laxity. It had almost cost the lives of two people very dear to him. He blamed himself exclusively.
Checking Roxton's breathing and satisfied that the man's body temperature had at last reverted back to normal, he eased himself out of the blankets. Dressing quickly in the cool air, he pulled on his now dry pants and shirt. As he approached the fire, Ned looked up at him, but the journalist's relaxed expression swiftly shifted to one of shock.
Challenger stopped. "What's the matter?"
"Blood. On your shirt." Ned rose and approached Challenger, pointing to the stain saturating Challenger's undershirt.
Challenger immediately understood. He ran back to Roxton.
"What is it?" Ned asked anxiously, chasing after the professor.
Challenger knelt beside the still hunter and pulled back the blanket. It revealed what he had dreaded. Blood covered Roxton's left arm, dripping warm and dark into the wool.
"Get my pack!" he shouted. He eased the unconscious man on his side and got his first good look at the rip in the shoulder and down the back of the arm all the way to the elbow. Merciful maker, how had that happened? It looked hours old and very deep. The man should have bled to death by now. Then Challenger realized that the cold had slowed down the bleeding. But now that the body had warmed back up again, it flowed freely for the first time.
Ned rushed over with the medical pack that Challenger promptly opened. Removing what he needed, he quickly went to work assessing the damage, washing away the blood and sewing up the ragged tear. There was bruising around the wound also and it led him to the conclusion that the injury must have happened when the dam broke. Roxton wouldn't have left Marguerite alone to face the onslaught. Whatever debris had struck him had been powerful; it would have knocked a lesser man out cold. But Roxton's frigid body and sheer determination had not registered that fact. The cold conditions had kept him alive as well as almost killing him. With Marguerite trapped and no one else to save him, he would have surely drowned if he had lost consciousness.
Challenger shook his head at the complexity of fate.
Ned helped him bandage Roxton's injury. Nothing was broken that Challenger could tell which was another blessing. He immobilized the limb and then quickly checked his patient over for any other hidden wounds. Thankfully, there were none.
The fact that he had overlooked such a simple thing horrified him. What a fool he was! He told Ned to keep a close eye on the hunter and then maneuvered over to Marguerite's side. Veronica looked up from where she sat beside the unconscious heiress. She was clothed again in her dry skins and was watching the proceedings with much alarm.
"Is he alright?"
Challenger nodded and then shrugged. The two of them quickly examined Marguerite as well, looking for any additional injuries. To their relief they found nothing more than a few scratches. Challenger sat back on his heels and rubbed his face wearily. Veronica laid a hand on his shoulder.
"There was no way you could have known. What happened today was a fluke," she told him.
"Of course, I should have known! It's a classic formation, reminiscent of the mud flats in Alaska where glacier movement has worn the sediment incredibly fine. People die there every year and my stupidity almost killed them here on the plateau. What was I thinking, trying to harness a force that refuses to be tamed?"
"No, no shame. Just guilt," he intoned quietly.
The elder man stood abruptly and walked away, deep in his own thoughts. Veronica followed him. He came to a stop by the surging water, now almost as deep as it had once been.
"All that effort, wasted. Two lives hanging in the balance, because of me. My God, what have I done?" the professor whispered.
The huntress stood beside him, silently looking out over the stream. "My father once told me that people collect guilt as they do books or favors. But that some people shoulder more than their share. Sometimes, no amount of forethought will change a fact. I've come up with a billion things that I should have done, things I could have said that would have stopped my parents from leaving or made them take me with them. Each one used to eat away at me. But I know now that it doesn't matter in the end. It's no one's fault, Professor. We garner more than our share of guilt in this life. Don't take on more than what you are due." With that she strode back to the fire.
Challenger stared after Veronica in surprise. Regardless of how tough she was or how capable she was against danger, he had always seen her as a little girl lost in a savage world. She had grown up alone with no parenting from which one expected such wise lessons to be taught. Somehow, without them, she had found such truths on her own. Amazing.
He took solace in the fact that despite the horrors of the day's calamity, they were still alive and still together. They had not lost another one of their party due to foolhardy actions. They had survived another test set before them.
Veronica was right. There was no way to have realized what could have happened, and the fact that they were desperate to forestall the coming drought meant that some risks had to be taken. Roxton and Ned knew that going in. So had Marguerite. They would understand. They always did. Sometimes he wondered why any of them put up with him and his mad scheming.
But then he knew. They were friends. Somewhere along the way they had transformed from just simple explorers with separate dreams to being a cohesive unit, a family. Challenger sighed deeply as a warmth filled his cold chest.
It was something he had never expected to have in his lifetime. His wife had never wanted such things. And it had pained him to think that his legacy would only be in dusty books and lecture halls. There would be no flesh and blood to carry on his name. Until now.
He regarded the figures around the campfire, sons and daughters all. He had watched them grow in both spirit and mettle; had watched them realize their dreams; and had watched love blossom slowly among them, as hopeful as any loving parent. They were all different from when they had arrived so long ago onto the plateau. He was proud of all of them.
"I promise you," he whispered. "I'll find a way home." And by God, he would keep it.
It was late evening when Roxton regained consciousness. He was warm. He barely recognized the sensation. He reveled in it. It felt good.
His body ached in places he hadn't remembered existed. Lying on his right side facing the fire, he realized his left arm was secured to his side, and the slight movement to test it brought waves of agony. He dragged his memory for what had happened to warrant it, but it was too elusive. He shifted his head and saw Challenger, Veronica and Ned sitting around the fire opposite him.
They conversed in low tones, almost melodic amidst the cacophony of sounds emanating from the jungle. He closed his eyes again, exhaustion still beating at him. They flew open again as he realized there was someone missing.
He brought his gaze up to Marguerite. They lay head to head, encircling one end of the fire. She lay motionless, but there was a glow to her cheeks, one that he had prayed to see again when he was clutching her in the cold, rising stream.
Her shivering body had finally stilled and her breathing was slow and regular. Roxton's face twisted for a moment as utter relief washed over him. He never wanted to go through such a thing again. Watching her slowly die was the most excruciating thing he had ever endured. He was surprised his own heart was still beating and not lying in shattered pieces within his chest.
He reached out with his good arm and touched her hand, which had slipped out of the blankets and rested near her cheek. As his fingers brushed hers, she opened her eyes and stared at him. Her fingers entwined with his, warm and alive. They said nothing, but continued holding hands and together they eventually slipped into peaceful slumber.
The quiet of the treehouse was shattered by a violent sneeze followed by a bout of rough coughing. Challenger raised an eyebrow at the angry grumbling that drifted up a moment later. Veronica grinned at him from across the breakfast table. The frigid water had taken its toll and someone obviously wasn't very happy about the lingering affects. But thankfully it was just a cold and not too serious, just inconvenient. A small price to pay after all they had been through.
"Not unexpected really," the professor commented. "All that time in the cold water and low resistance, it's perfectly natural."
There were heavy footsteps on the stairs and Roxton entered, looking quite chipper despite his arm being in a sling and secured tightly to his chest. His shirt hung through one arm and the rest lay draped unbuttoned over his shoulders. Buttoning was a feat beyond him at the moment.
"Good morning all," he greeted them in a strong, clear voice.
"Good morning, John," Challenger returned. "How are you feeling today?"
"Ever better." He massaged his shoulder. "Hardly hurts at all."
"Excellent. Maybe we'll see about letting you maneuver a bit without the brace."
"Now that's good news!" He was feeling far too restricted. Grinning broadly, he looked around. "Marguerite still not up?"
"I heard her moving around. She should be up shortly, I expect," Veronica answered. "Unless she decided to go back to sleep. You know her."
A sharp voice reached their ears. "Just what are you implying?" Marguerite Krux waltzed up the stairs from below. She looked refreshed and crisp in her lovely lavender blouse and trim split skirt. Her cheeks glowed pink and her silver-gray eyes sparkled. "Who could sleep on such a beautiful day as this? The sun is shining. The birds are…well, squawking, and breakfast is already prepared."
Roxton laughed at her good mood. On normal days, she rarely had anything pleasant to say about mornings. However, ever since the incident at the stream, a week past, her attitude seemed just a little bit more enthusiastic. Little wonder after what she had been through. Roxton just hoped it would last a bit longer.
She caught him watching her from across the room and came over.
"Here let me help you with that, John." Reaching
out, she buttoned his shirt up for him. Her long delicate fingers manipulated
the buttons with slow, graceful ease.
He exhaled slowly, willing his heart to cease its incessant pounding, his gaze taking in the slight mussed nature of her dark, unruly hair, the hooded flutter of her eyelids, and the wonderful tinge of life that kissed her soft skin.
"Thank you," he replied a bit huskily. The simple
joy of her presence filled him.
His mouth quirked into a grin. His free hand fell over hers as she adjusted the last button, squeezing it gently.
Wracking coughs came again from below and heralded the appearance of Ned Malone. His face was ruddy and his nose bright red. He had a blanket wrapped around him as he stomped up to the main level.
"Good morning, Ned," Veronica offered, knowing it wasn't, but trying to be polite nonetheless.
He grumbled again pulling his blanket tighter and glaring at Roxton and Marguerite. "I still don't understand why they're not sick and I am."
Marguerite tilted her head over her shoulders toward him. "It's called a strong constitution."
"Strong constitution! Ha! More like stubborn—"
"Now, Malone," Roxton broke in. "There's no need for that. Your cold isn't all that bad."
Ned grunted once, seating himself at the table, and blew his nose in his handkerchief.
Challenger patted the young man on the shoulder. "Look at it this way, Malone. At least, you don't have to pick up Roxton's chores while he's laid up."
Ned brightened a bit. "That's true."
"See, there's a bright, diamond lining in every cloud, Malone," Marguerite responded gaily, taking a seat next to him.
"Excuse me, isn't that 'silver' lining?" Roxton corrected as he came up on her other side.
She shifted to look up at him, her expression forming into one that held far too much deviousness. A shard of dread shivered up Roxton's spine for a split second.
"It's the only way I can think to remind you that you owe me one gem about so big." She measured a sizable distance with her thumb and forefinger.
He plopped dejectedly down in his chair and looked over at her with exasperation. "I'm a hunter not a miner."
She leaned on her elbows as they rested on the table and cast her eyes toward him. The edges of her lips lifted. "That's no excuse. I can show you how to properly handle a sluice." She let it toll of her tongue in a most seductive manner.
He raised an eyebrow and licked his lips distractedly. "Yes, I'm sure you can."
"Well, no sense letting even one get away."
"You have a one track mind, you know that?"
"Yes, and the memory of an elephant."
"Not to mention the lungs of a fish," Ned huffed.
She turned her attention to the young journalist and appraised him with a raised eyebrow. "You're very surly when you're sick."
Veronica brought the platters of scrambled pterodactyl eggs and some fresh fruit to the table. "A good breakfast will help clear up that cold, Ned."
"What's the point? I can't taste it," he moaned.
"Then too bad it wasn't Marguerite's turn to cook. It might have been another blessing."
Marguerite glared at the blonde who returned the look with a broad, pleased grin. Their friendly infighting was one thing that neither of them would ever tire of. They each took it as a daily challenge and neither would concede the battle.
"Yes, well, I'm cooking tomorrow," Marguerite noted, pinning Malone with her steely gaze. "And you better be well enough to give me an opinion."
Ned gulped. "You know, I think I may be having a relapse."
As laughter filled the room, Roxton's snaked his hand under the table and found Marguerite's as it rested on the napkin over her lap. She instinctively grasped his, curling her fingers over his large, firm hand, but she didn't look over at him. However, Roxton noticed her smile inch even wider, bringing a luminosity to her porcelain features that drove any fears from his mind. She was still his and he looked forward to spending whatever time he could with her, even if it meant digging in the muddy ground for her misbegotten jewels for a time. At least he would have her sweet company to share. A small price to pay indeed.
It truly was a beautiful day.