Somebody's, Anybody's Past
A story written quite, quite awhile ago for a TLW challenge, but reposted here.
Disclaimer: Borrowed the characters. And borrowed some of the lines from pilot episode/movie. Thanks to all.
In brief: Sometime into season 4...
"Now this looks familiar." Marguerite thumped the wagon with her hand.
"Oh, I don't know, Marguerite. Maybe there are two such gypsy wagons on the plateau."
"You're joking." She noticed Roxton shift his rifle to his right hand. He did remember their previous encounter.
Malone stepped back and read the faded print across the wagon's side. "Queen of the Gypsies and Reader of Fortunes."
"That settles it," Veronica turned away from the town. "We're sleeping on the trail."
Marguerite contemplated the wooden buildings off to their right and the thick brush Veronica marched toward. "Maybe we can avoid her."
Chuckling, Roxton leaned close to her. "There are only seven buildings, Marguerite. That doesn't give anyone too many places to hide."
Challenger massaged the ache in his shoulder. It rained last night and the treetops had offered them little shelter. "Well, I, for one, could use a bed for a night. We're still three days walk from the tree house."
Malone nodded, recalling a similar motion of his father's as age beset him. "I've gotta agree with Challenger and Marguerite. With these samples in our backpacks, it's hard going. I vote for town."
"Veronica?" Roxton smelled the delicious odors wafting from the center building. "A night indoors does sound good."
The young woman threw a rueful smile at her companions. "All right. But no stable. Someone," her eyes locked on Marguerite, "pays for a nice room." She adjusted the other woman's backpack straps with a firm yank. "For all of us."
Marguerite combed her fingers through her hair. Encountering one too many tangles, she emitted an annoyed hiss and shoved her hat back on. "If I have enough."
Several children bolted out of the closest building, disrupting the quiet with laughter and shouting in several languages. Roxton chuckled as a child used him to hide behind. "What are they saying?"
The oriental girl ran after the boy who couldn't find her.
Marguerite feigned interest elsewhere allowing Veronica time to answer.
"I'm not sure. It sounds..."
"Chinese," she interjected. "There's a little Gallic with American slang thrown in."
Roxton stopped the argument between the two women before it started. No one could best Marguerite when it came to languages. And she enjoyed confirming that fact whenever an opportunity presented itself. "Fine, Marguerite. But what are they saying?"
"The town is celebrating New Year's." She noticed a small face peak around the building's corner. "Specifically the girl said to you: 'Tag, you're it.'"
The English Lord slapped her bottom. "Now, you're it."
"Lord Roxton!" Laughing, she whirled around, waving a fist in the air. It almost landed on the cheek of Isadore.
"My old friends," the gypsy queen proclaimed, taking Malone's arm. "I told my brother that it was you." Her dark eyes studied Malone and Roxton, then lingered upon Challenger. Still clutching Ned, she extended her free arm to the older man. "You must be Professor Challenger."
He accepted her offer and bestowed a gentle kiss on her hand. "And did your powers tell you that?"
"No. Malone's description of you has stayed with me these many months. It is good to meet you at last." She took little notice of the two women, instead looking past them for someone else. "But there is one still missing. Did he not make this journey as well?"
Veronica pulled Malone from her grip. "You were the one who prophesied not all would leave this plateau."
"Oh, I am so sorry."
Veronica flinched from Isadore's touch on her cheek. "Look, we've..."
"Got to find something to eat," Malone finished. "It's been a long day for us."
"Ah, well, the rooms here are few and probably filled with tired revelers. But we can check with the inn's proprietor while we get you some food."
"Sorry, folks." The inn-keeper was a perfect blend of his customers with oriental eyes set against pale skin almost lost in auburn hair. "Most visitors around here stay with family and my two rooms be filled. Now, since Isadore will vouch for ya, I can offer the one spare cot I've got and the floor beneath ya. We'll be closing up pretty soon." He winked at Challenger. "The celebratin' be goin' on two days and I'm gettin' too old for all-nighters."
Veronica shrugged. Over her years she'd slept in trees, crevices, wherever nothing would eat her. The wooden walls were filled with worm holes and the floor was worn stone. But the thatched roof was thick and held in the warmth. "This is fine to me." She smirked at Marguerite. "It's indoors."
Marguerite spied an empty table surrounded by several chairs near the fire. Grabbing Roxton's hand, she led him through the throng of people. The others followed, likewise squeezing between the party-goers.
Ned held a chair out for Isadore. Her lowered eyes flirted her thanks. "Where are you staying, Isadore?" His attempt to reach Veronica's chair was too late as she spun it around and draped a leg across it. With a sigh, Ned sat in the chair next to her.
"Oh, my brother and I are sleeping in our wagon. We'd offer you space but we're leaving well before dawn and that's too early for you, I'm sure."
Everyone looked over at Marguerite. She glared back. "What?"
"Then here it is," Roxton confirmed amiably. "I don't suppose we could get some food before you retire, sir?"
The proprietor laughed. "I make it a rule to never pass-up a payin' customer." He and his wife disappeared into a back room.
Isadore clapped her hands in joy. "Since there are still a few hours left of the New Year's Day, we must toast the gods, thank them for the good things of last year and ask for a wonderful year to come."
Marguerite gestured at Ned. "We do have things to be thankful for."
Roxton caught her hand. "Many things."
Isadore jumped to her feet swirling her skirts to her laughter. "Now we're in the spirit of the day." She called to a man leaning against a window. "Theo!" Her brother lifted the mandolin from his chest and played a tune no one knew but everyone recognized. Several patrons paired off and danced. Roxton pulled Marguerite to her feet.
"Don't you ever get tired?" But she didn't appear tired either as she easily kept up with the Lord of Avebury on the dance floor.
Challenger leaned back in his chair, clapping to the music. "I'd dance with you, Veronica, but the rheumatism in my shoulder is acting up something fierce."
Ned woke from his reverie and acted on his fantasy. "Would you care to dance?"
Veronica accepted his hand and followed him onto the floor.
During the third song, the proprietor announced their food.
"I'll fetch the drink," Isadore offered.
Her brother set the last cup on the tray she'd placed on the bar. From a pocket in her sleeve, the gypsy queen slyly produced a small vial. "Not enough for everyone." She tipped the tiny container over the rim of one glass. Its blue contents dissolved in the wine. "We shall let Fate choose."
"Wait, my friends." Isadore returned to the table with the tray. "We must toast the New Year." She set the plain wooden tray in the middle of the table. Her brother appeared at her side and handed her a cup.
Each of the explorers took a wooden cup from the tray and held it in the air.
With a deep breath, Isadore faced east and the unseen presence of tomorrow. "To the goddess of Fate, may she bless us with many tomorrows and gift us with release from our pasts."
Marguerite circled the cot, laying a blanket across it, fluffing the pillow that had been included. Challenger nudged his blanket with his foot trying to straighten the wrinkled wet thing without bending over.
"George. Lay that vile thing near the fire so it'll dry out by tomorrow."
He let go a long sigh. "And what would you suggest I sleep on, Marguerite?"
"The cot, of course. I wouldn't wish Roxton's snoring on anyone. I'll sleep near him so I can keep him on his side and the noise volume low."
"Marguerite, I do not snore," Roxton defended.
"You do when you're this exhausted." She patted his abdomen as he stretched in an unrestrained yawn.
"Must be the wine."
He situated his rifle by his side and stretched out on the blanket. His snoring started immediately.
"Good grief." Marguerite shoved her foot under his hip and rolled him to one side.
"Honestly, Marguerite," Veronica yawned. "I've never heard Roxton snore. It really must be the wine." She laid down in a shadow conspicuously near Malone. "Good night."
"Good night," Marguerite snapped, realizing there were no more dry blankets. A neatly folded tablecloth set on the corner of the bar. "Well, I'm sure it was included with the price of the meal."
With a hard snap, she shook the bright red cloth and laid it on the stone floor near Roxton. The man rolled onto his back. Marguerite knelt beside him and whispered, "Roll over, Lord Roxton."
He and his rifle responded to her request.
Marguerite laid half of the tablecloth on the floor and pulled the other half across her.
Roxton rolled over, his rifle floating across her. The hand that held it remained on the rifle's butt. "Body heat, my dear."
Too many shadows covered the room for him to see the pleasure on her face. "Body heat, my love."
Something was wrong. When John Roxton glanced back, he saw two white men and several native bearers behind him.
"Be careful, Johnnie," his brother warned. "Don't get too far ahead."
Roxton halted. That was definitely wrong. Those were his words. He paused at the base of a huge tree and turned to inform his brother of the strange goings-on. A giant ape dropped in front of him. He raised his rifle as a club, but they were too close. The first blow knocked him to the ground. Something snapped in his chest. He covered his face with his arms to deflect the great ape's blows.
The creature jerked him up. It hurled him against the tree. The world blurred into a red haze. John tried to lift his arms but they wouldn't respond.
"Shoot!" The man next to William commanded.
"I might miss and hit him," the heir to Avebury cried.
"He's already dead, you fool. Take the shot!"
The ape snatched up his broken body and squeezed. Its look of surprise surely mirrored his own as the shot tore through its chest into his.
"No! No! Johnnie."
William and Pearson-Rice shoved the massive ape from John's broken body.
William's cries tore through the jungle as he saw the hole in his brother's chest.
John Roxton attempted to tell his brother how wrong everything was. How he should have fired the shot. But he couldn't. Blood filled his mouth and was the only thing that came out.
"Johnnie. No. No. I've killed you."
Lifting its various limbs, Pearson-Rice appraised the dead body of the ape. "Your brother was already dead, Roxton. You saved him from any more agony."
John Roxton blinked his eyes to fight back the red haze. He needed to tell his brother this was wrong. But he died instead.
"Roxton," Marguerite pushed the dead weight of his arm off her. "Wake-up. You're having some kind of nightmare."
He rolled limp onto his back. She waited a few seconds for his grumbling.
"Roxton." Her voice was low. "I'm moving your rifle out of reach," she teased.
The hunter and protector didn't stir.
"Roxton." Her call was more urgent. "Wake up." Pretending to lay his rifle on his other side, Marguerite shoved her knee hard into his side.
The man still didn't stir.
"I will provide funding. There will be a bank draft available tomorrow morning which should meet your needs, Professor Challenger."
Lord Roxton sat down. The reporter leaned next to him. "Who is that?"
"A foolish woman whose husband will set her straight when she goes home," an older woman huffed.
"Mother," the self-professed adventurer patted her wrinkled hand. "Women like that don't have husbands who can tell them anything."
William Roxton and Ned Malone followed the shapely female with their eyes. "None-the-less, I wouldn't mind being that husband," Ned whispered through his smile.
"Really," Lady Roxton spat.
The old woman appeared frail but there was nothing wrong with her hearing.
"Challenger, Malone, Veronica! I can't wake Roxton!" Marguerite shook him violently, desperately.
"Well, here we are, assembled and outfitted and not a word from our mysterious benefactress." Malone selected a weapon from the crates Roxton had brought. He eyed the rifle in his hands like it was one of Challenger's dinosaur bones. It felt out of place in a hand that had chosen a pen and pencil. Even in the Great War a gun had been his last resort.
Roxton brandished his weapon like it was an extension of himself.
"Will we really need all of this?" Arthur Summerlee looked as uncomfortable as the reporter. "Excuse me, Madam." Summerlee stepped across Lady Roxton.
"I believe," the woman's voice cut through her son's excitement. "I believe your benefactress has received a proper lecture from her husband. All of this packing nonsense was for nothing. You have seen the last of her, gentlemen."
"Not so, madam." The doors to Challenger's study opened. A befuddled butler reached around the woman for the brass door handles. "And by the end of our journey, we will have seen enough of each other to be close friends."
"Really, Madam Krux." Lady Roxton set stiffly on an overstuffed leather chair. "You couldn't possibly believe you're accompanying my son into the Amazon."
Marguerite studied the room around her. Neither Madam Challenger nor her touch was anywhere to be seen. Dozens of books teetered in hazardous stacks. The odor of leather and gun oil and stale tobacco was overpowering.
Lady Roxton rose and moved protectively next to her precious boy.
"Why, Lady Roxton, I assumed you'd be pleased to have my company on such a long journey. You do go everywhere your son goes, I've noticed." Both the older men vocally sided with Lady Roxton. William Roxton remained silent, observing her. There was something to his stare. Good or bad… there were plenty of days ahead to determine which. "I will be a member of this expedition, Lady Roxton, gentlemen, since I am financing it."
"William, come. I will not tolerate such insolence from one as…"
Summerlee took a fatherly stance before Marguerite. "Really, my dear. Such a journey will be very hard and tedious."
"My interests, Doctor Summerlee, are geology. If I am bored, it will be because Professor Challenger is wrong about this lost world."
The scientist took the bait. "Oh, you will not be bored, my good woman."
"Excellent. I see we have champagne. Shall we offer a toast?"
The confounded male faces regarded each other, wondering who had given Madam Krux permission to go.
Lady Roxton fixed her angry dark eyes on the other woman in the room. "You shouldn't go, William."
Her son handed her a glass. "It'll be fine, mother." His voice lowered. "And with a geologist on board maybe this journey will pan out and Avebury will be an estate to be proud of once more."
His mother accepted the glass. She had never denied her eldest boy anything. The ruined finances, the beautiful but useless wife, nothing he had asked for. The others offered a toast to the thrill of adventure and science. Lady Roxton prayed for the will to say no.
"How much wine did he have?" Challenger checked Roxton's coloring and eyes.
"No more than the rest of us."
Malone glanced toward the kitchen. "Could he have had a bad reaction to something in the food? Maybe a spice…."
"No. His abdomen isn't stiff or distended." Challenger's head twitched with an idea. "Look for any bug bites."
"George, are you serious?" Marguerite's voice was high with panic. "We're all covered with bug bites."
"I mean one recent." He examined Roxton's arms and neck.
Marguerite displayed her bug bitten forearm. "And how do you tell?"
"Another letter for the society, Doctor Summerlee?" Sipping her tea, Marguerite joined the men about the campfire.
"I promised them a letter every week." He sighed as he gazed about the camp site. "If I'd have brought a secretary, he could have copied the one from last week."
"If you had any vision, man, you'd be seeing enough for a lifetime." Challenger took to his feet and began yet another lecture. "The Amazon is practically unexplored..."
Summerlee didn't respond to this belittling tirade. He continued to compose his report.
The scientist stopped mid-sentence. "Sit here, Miss Krux. Obviously your company would be preferred to mine." Challenger stormed off to his tent.
Marguerite chuckled as she sat. "You know, you'd think such a brilliant man would recognize when he's being baited."
A wide grin spread over the old man's face. "Time to retire for the night. Good night, Miss Krux. Lord Roxton."
The bored woman peered over the shoulder of Lord William Roxton. "I always see you writing your mother, Roxton. Aren't you married?"
The man closed the leather bound writing pad. "Yes, I am, if it is any business of yours." His tone softened when he noticed the closeness of the woman. "Affairs of the estate and all that."
Marguerite leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs, catching a drop of tea with her tongue before it escaped down the side of the cup. "I've heard your estate isn't 'all that'. Which would explain why you didn't finance Challenger's little sojourn to this lost world."
"After the war, money became very tight. Now that I have a child, it is a habit I will continue. Not that you'd understand, Miss Krux, but the European economy is still teetering. Germany may never recover. Meanwhile the Americans spend money like they were made of it."
"Oh, I understand quite a bit, Lord Roxton" Marguerite placed her teacup to warm on a shelf near the fire. "During the war, my late husband, even though his sympathies were with the English, well, some foreign persons spoke freely around him. And one of the more interesting topics was of an English lord whose sympathies..."
He caught her arm as she reached for the teapot. "I'd stop right there, Miss Krux."
The woman didn't move. "Why so touchy, Lord Roxton?"
"I'd like an answer to that too." Malone laid his journal on a narrow portable table. "Care to oblige us?"
Marguerite stood, placing herself between the two men. "Ned, I thought you were tucked in for the night." Neither man backed down from their posturing. "It was just gossip. And besides, tomorrow we're heading into headhunter territory. We may need Lord Roxton's legendary skill with a rifle."
The English lord snatched his writing case from the ground and marched to his tent.
"Just to be on the safe side, Mister Malone, I don't think I'd expose my back to him during a fight."
Challenger felt the back of Roxton's neck. "It could be a scorpion bite, Marguerite. If you recall one..."
"And it hurt like hell and I believe I expressed some pain. Roxton didn't mention anything biting him, George." Marguerite readjusted the pillow beneath the unconscious man's head.
Exasperated, Ned ran his fingers through his hair for the tenth time. "And when does Roxton admit to being in pain?"
Veronica smiled back at Ned. "When he's bleeding all over the floor."
Marguerite laughed out loud in spite of her fear. "And then he apologizes for the mess."
"The bearers. They're all dead." Summerlee stumbled toward the balloon in shock.
Challenger caught the older man before he fell over something. "Everyone get anything else you need onto the balloon."
"Now!" screamed Malone. He saw the painted figures through the brush. The reporter grabbed the backpack which contained his journals and tossed it onto the balloon floor. Seizing a guide rope, he swung himself in.
"Professor," he opened the steam valve. "Come on!" Leaping back onto the ground, Malone snatched a box from Summerlee and threw it in. "Come on, doctor. You're next." He forced the older man over the basket wall. "Roxton, grab what you can."
The hunter gapped at the natives rushing toward him.
"Move it!" Marguerite shouted, shoving him toward the basket. "Or get out of the way for the rest of us!"
Dozens of natives with spears and blow-darts charged the camp. Reluctantly Summerlee pulled his pistol and aimed. One fell from the bullet he fired. Better him than Malone he thought. Another one fell. Better him than Miss Krux.
"Shoot, Roxton!" Frantic, Challenger loaded another box into the basket. He had to try and get as much as possible on board. So much would be needed just to survive.
"We have to go now, Professor!" Malone shoved Marguerite toward the basket. "Now, Roxton!"
Challenger climbed over one side of the huge basket, fully opening the steam valve. Spears and darts struck where he had just stood. The balloon lifted from the ground. "Roxton. Where's Roxton?"
Marguerite steadied Malone as he collapsed against her trying to catch his breath. "You all right?" Something stirred among the haphazard pile of boxes. "Roxton's over here, Professor," Marguerite snarled, as the man gingerly holstered his pistol. "Did you even fire that thing, Lord Roxton?"
Challenger made room for Ned at the controls. "Forget about it, Miss Krux. The journey really begins now."
"Let's get him to his feet."
"What'll that do?" Marguerite demanded.
But all of them were willing to try anything and together pulled Roxton to his feet.
Veronica and Challenger swayed as Marguerite adjusted Roxton's arms over their shoulders.
"Let's walk him around the room." Challenger shifted the lifeless man's weight.
"Let me take him, Professor," Ned offered.
Veronica flashed a grateful smile. The two dragged him in a small circle then laid him back on his blanket.
"I don't know what to do." Challenger eyed their meager possessions as if something was there that might help. "I wish Summerlee was here."
"A jungle woman," Malone laughed, trying to wipe the plant sap from his clothing.
"And a beautiful one at that." The English lord observed Veronica from behind with an ungentlemanly grin.
"I'm going to have to write Burroughs and tell him he chose the wrong sex for his books."
Roxton continued to leer at the view. "No one will believe you."
"Your girlfriend will." Marguerite pushed past them. "And so will your mother."
"This is incredible," Summerlee gasped at the tree house before them.
"This is home," Veronica corrected proudly.
Ned did more than tap Roxton's cheek. A small trickle of blood oozed from the corner of his mouth.
"He's already unconscious, Ned."
Lord Roxton winked at the reporter. "Personally, I'd record in that journal the feminine wonders of this plateau."
Malone cringed silently and turned to follow Assai, Marguerite and Summerlee toward the Zanga village.
"How far?" Roxton spat, already weary of their morning trek.
Veronica longed for a large hole for the English Lord to fall in. "About a quarter of a mile less than when you asked me the last time." She quickened her pace, passing Challenger. "Was he like this the entire trip from England?"
Challenger thought about it. "As a matter-of-fact: yes."
The jungle broke abruptly onto the clearing. Pristine blue water poured down a waterfall into a lake. Dozens of streams and a narrow river undulated around the rocks then disappeared into the jungle. At the top of the waterfall a huge nest set on a rocky overhang. The scientist forgot his reason for being there and enjoyed Nature's marvel before him.
"Come on," Roxton snorted. "Let's get this over with. You given any thought to how you're going to do this, Challenger? I'd suggest a westerly approach. More rock edges for hand holds..."
"I?" Challenger was somewhat taken aback at Roxton's advice. "I assumed you would climb up there. You've some experience."
Roxton straddled a large boulder and sat down, laying his rifle across his knees. "You want the bloody thing. You go get it."
Veronica glowered at the younger man. "I'll go get it," she stated, turning toward the rocky wall.
"No." Lord Roxton leapt to his feet. "If anything happened to you, we'd never find our way back."
Veronica stiffened with rage and released it loudly upon the English Lord. "Didn't Malone claim you were some kind of great hunter?"
Challenger contemplated the rocky cliff like it was any scientific puzzle to be solved. "No, he's right. I couldn't let either of you risk your life at my behest."
"Professor, it's quite a difficult climb" Veronica admonished. "Even I'll have some problems."
"If you're implying, young lady, that I'm too old, well, you're no judge of the human specimen." Had his wife been there, she'd have confronted him about his foolish pride.
"That's not what I'm saying at all, Professor." She glanced over her shoulder at the other man. "Help me talk him out of it."
Roxton practiced his aim at the jungle. "It's his decision."
Challenger stood at the base of the cliff and tested his first hand hold. With a smug smile he moved up the cliff, slow, but determined.
"Maybe I should have gone," Roxton complained. "At this rate we'll be here all bloody day."
Veronica spun around, her fingers balled into tight fists. "You just don't get it do you? He's going to die doing this."
Roxton perked up, appreciating the potential excitement. "I don't know. I'd say he has an excellent chance of getting to the nest. And I'd give him a 50-50 chance of getting back down with the egg intact."
"You're more cold hearted than these dinosaurs." Veronica stomped away from him.
Out of breath, Challenger still managed to pull himself into the nest. Exhilaration surged through him as he picked up one of the pterodactyl eggs. He suppressed his scientific curiosity and slid the egg into his backpack. He'd explain to Marguerite later as to why her delicates we're lining his pack.
The noise from above was defining.
"Jump, Professor!" Veronica waved him down. He'd have a better chance with the falls than a pterodactyl claw.
Even Roxton grew concerned. It would be awkward explaining the man's death to the others. "Jump, man!"
Challenger never heard the screams from below. The mother's cry even drowned out his own scream. Her talons dug into his back as she snatched him from her nest. Though all feeling left his legs, he clung to the backpack.
Roxton took aim and froze. "I might hit him," he whispered.
"It's his only chance," Veronica screeched. "Shoot!"
His shot went wide, but startled the pterodactyl into dropping her burden. They heard his body crunch against the rocks.
"No," Veronica wished, tears welling up.
"Bloody hell!" Roxton sprinted across the shallow stream. "Damn it. Damn it!"
Challenger attempted to speak through the blood gushing out his mouth. "Tell my wife I love her. I'm sorry." His broken body shuddered and bubbles formed around his lips as his last breath left him. "God help you all."
Veronica dropped to her knees and grabbed his scrapped hands. "No, Professor. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let you go. I'm sorry."
"We need to get going if we're going to make it back to the tree house before nightfall."
Veronica hissed her words. "We're not leaving him!"
"Challenger was a scientist. He appreciated the natural order of things."
Her expression threatened him into submission. "We're not leaving him!"
Marguerite tucked the tablecloth around Roxton's still form.
Veronica knelt beside her. "He'll be fine, Marguerite."
The woman covered her quivering lips with her hand. "Do you really think so?" She wasn't as successful at hiding the tears. "Have you seen anything like this before?"
The younger woman put her arm around her, glancing over at the two men locked in an animated discussion by the fire. She turned back to Marguerite. This was what Veronica feared... losing Ned. Like she had lost her father. Like Marguerite could lose Roxton. From the corner of her eye she caught Ned's sad smile at her. Veronica leaned her head against Marguerite's. They'd both take their chances with Fate and the plateau and love. Neither would walk away. There was no where to go.
"He was an arrogant, bombastic man," Summerlee lamented.
"Yet, you couldn't help but like him," Veronica concluded.
The funeral pyre was little more than ashes. The almost reverent silence faded as the jungle creatures that had fled from the smoke returned.
Marguerite clutched a small box to her. "I put his watch and wedding ring in here for his wife."
Summerlee patted her arm. "That was good thinking, my dear. She'll appreciate it."
Roxton shouldered his rifle and the backpack still containing the egg.
"I thought we agreed to burn that infernal egg." Summerlee pulled on his backpack. "Toss it into the brush. At least it'll serve some purpose."
"This thing is going to be more than a quick meal for some raptor. It's worth a bloody fortune."
"You mean as Challenger's legacy," Ned corrected.
"Of course, his widow will share in the profit."
Veronica watched the last embers fade. "I'm sure she'd rather have her husband back." The bushes shook with activity. "We've got to go."
"Onto the caves and off this infernal plateau." Roxton's tone was too cheery. The others plodded behind, clutching their memories. "You've got a map, don't you, Veronica?" he called back.
"I don't need a map. Assai told me how to get there. She'll meet us at the entrance and guide you all to the tunnel you have to take."
Malone and Veronica hastened their pace and soon walked ahead of the others. "I'm sorry we put you through this." Ned couldn't bring himself to look at her.
"Death is a part of the plateau."
Hesitantly he took her hand. "But I know you feel responsible for this one."
She squeezed his fingers. "Maybe a little. I should have..."
"This was the find of his lifetime. It proved he was right. And that was important to him."
The two young people abruptly laughed. "From what I knew of him, being right was everything."
Marguerite observed Ned and Veronica disappear around a bend. "If we stay much longer, I think Malone might find a reason not to go back."
Summerlee toyed with his pipe and his thoughts. "You know, my dear, you needn't dawdle back here with me."
"Oh, yes," she snorted. "Lord Roxton's company is infinitely preferable to yours."
Their laughter ceased with the ground shaking.
Roxton steadied the pack hanging on his shoulder. "What the hell?"
Marguerite and the doctor turned to see a huge mouth hovering over them.
"Run, Miss Krux!" Summerlee shoved her forward.
The old man managed several steps before his upper torso was snatched up by the T-rex.
"Summerlee!" Marguerite lifted her rifle to fire.
In just seconds there was nothing to do but run.
Roxton caught up with the Veronica and Malone. "I was too late," he moaned.
This time they heard the roar before the ground began to shake.
"You left them behind?" Veronica turned to run. Marguerite slammed into her.
"Come on!" Marguerite slapped her hair from her face. "Run!"
The four ran at least a mile before pausing at a stream.
"I can't run anymore," Marguerite panted. She fell to her knees, scooping water onto her face.
"How much further?" Roxton dropped beside her.
"Not more than a mile over that ridge. Assai described a large cave in the middle of those hills." Veronica bent over taking deep breaths. "I'm going to circle around and make sure the T-rex isn't still behind us."
"I'm sure the creature is off somewhere digesting," Roxton shrugged.
Marguerite winced and turned away from the hunter. "You are disgusting."
"I'll go with you." Malone didn't give her a chance to refuse. He knew she would look for any remains of Summerlee.
"Wait a minute. I never said I was ready to actually leave this place." Marguerite wiped her forehead with her sleeve. "I thought we were just going to do a little scouting."
Veronica took a deep breath. "Lady, you talked Assai out of her necklace, which Summerlee described as a priceless. What more could you want?"
"Bravo, Miss Krux," Roxton applauded.
"I've never been in this for the money. Not entirely at least." Marguerite scrutinized the faces around her. None of whom could she trust. "I'm... I'm looking for an artifact. Something rumored to have disappeared in the Amazon. Specifically, the myths say a lost world."
Malone cocked his head. "So that's why you financed this expedition."
"Assai's necklace merely reimburses my expenditures."
Exasperated, Veronica gestured at the world around them. "What exactly are you looking for?"
"It's called an ouroborous. A snake eating itself, thus forming a circle." She drew a crude picture in the sand.
Veronica laughed sharply, surprised. "I've seen that. There's a carving on a cave wall about ten miles to the east."
Roxton took to feet. "You said Assai's waiting that way," he protested, pointing in the opposite direction.
"This detour won't add but a few hours maybe a day." Her voice was strained. "This is why I came here." She looked from Malone to Roxton. "You owe me this."
Veronica waved her arms in frustration. "Fine. You three decide. I'm going back to make sure our friend has gone on."
Malone eyed his fellow explorers with a sudden aversion and turned to follow Veronica. Hearing him behind her, she waited. "You need to help decide where this expedition is going next."
Malone nodded but didn't stop walking. He conserved his energy to keep up with the lithe form.
Roxton waited until the pair disappeared into the brush before laughing. "I knew you had a secret agenda, Miss Krux." His trained ears heard the quick snap of a twig to the left of them. "I, for one, am ready to go home. And I'm leaving today with or without you."
Marguerite pulled a handkerchief from her backpack. She dipped the cotton cloth into the water and pressed it against her cheeks. "You can go on to meet Assai with Malone. Veronica can take me to her cave. If we're not back by tomorrow, you two go on."
The English lord was unmoved by her offered compromise. "You know Malone won't leave this place if he thinks something has happened to our jungle beauty."
Furious, Marguerite turned her back on him. "When we get back, Malone's journals are going to provide some interesting reading for your wife. And if it takes too long to get them published, I'll tell her myself."
Another limb waved too much on their right.
"Go ahead. As if she'd believe the likes of you."
"Care more likely."
Roxton rose to leave.
"I guess I'll tell mommy."
"The necklace in your backpack? I'd like to see it up-close."
"Dream on, Lord Roxton."
Two raptors leapt from the bushes only a few feet away.
Roxton kicked the rifle out of her reach. Laughing uncontrollably he snatched her backpack and darted across the stream.
She managed a single scream before the two creatures tore her apart.
"What time is it?"
Challenger hadn't bothered to pocket his watch. "Five minutes later than you asked me the last time."
"John, wake-up!" She shook him.
He didn't stir.
She shook him again. And again. No one told her to stop.
"God, not Marguerite and Roxton!"
Malone began to tremble. In one hand he clutched Summerlee's old army pistol, in the other was the old man's wallet, blood-stained and torn.
"Two raptors." Veronica knelt by the gore that was once a human life. "No, not Roxton." She corrected, pointing at the footprints running away.
"Not Roxton?" he questioned. "Why not Roxton!" the reporter demanded.
Veronica paused on the edge of the stream. A smile crept over her lips. "Good for you, Marguerite."
A drop of blood had landed between two footprints.
"Maybe he did put up a fight," the younger man hoped.
"No, not enough blood." Veronica observed flatly. "Her rifle is over there. There's no blood on it. But her pistol is over there."
Malone couldn't look. There was something so familiar with all the deaths.
"It's covered with blood," Veronica continued. "She was holding it." The jungle woman followed an unseen path into the hills in her mind. "And I think she shot the third beast that was here."
"What time is it?"
"Five min..." Challenger interrupted himself. "It's almost midnight, Marguerite."
Veronica stood close to Malone. She watched Marguerite's caring ministrations to the man. "Did the Professor say how long a person can actually live like this?"
"A few days. Someone as strong as Roxton, maybe a week or more."
He ran. They were right behind him. His breath ached in his chest; sweat ran in rivers down his face; muscles burned beneath his skin; his leg bled in a slow, warm gush with each step. But he couldn't stop. She was waiting and counting on him. Under those conditions she wouldn't last long. He couldn't let her down. Ignore the pain. Don't think. Just run. Survive. His mother was old and sick but she had to last until he reached England, restored the estate. She had to last long enough to tell him: "Yes, you are as strong as your brother was. Yes, you are as able as your brother was. Yes, you are the better man."
He slipped on mud. In a panic, he checked the egg. It was still in one piece. Next to it was a necklace of priceless emeralds. Stones as big as his finger tips. His child would grow-up with the pride that was once the Roxton name. He shook the fantasy from his mind. There could only be a single train of thought now. Home. Assai had provisions waiting for them. His leg wasn't bad. Miss Krux was a lousy shot. Of course she did have the excuse of a raptor biting her arm off. He shook the image from his mind. Her fault for not wanting to go home. Her fault for funding the whole ridiculous trip.
He broke through the brush to a rocky hillside. Going west, the hunter paralleled the hill until a stack of sacks caught his eye.
"Assai? It's Lord William Roxton." He repeated his name with the same dignity it was announced in parliament.
"Well, Lord William Roxton," Ned revealed himself from behind a huge boulder. "You're late."
"Not as long as you're here, Ned. I take it you found Miss Krux. Terrible. Terrible, really. But the two of us shall do just fine. My leg's not that bad. One of the buggers got me with a claw."
Malone stepped toward him. "That's a bullet wound, Roxton. You left her to die. You think I'd trust you enough to walk with across a street let alone a continent?"
"You Americans are smarter than we give you credit for." Roxton unholstered his pistol and fired.
From behind him, Veronica called his name. Roxton turned in time to feel her blade lodge deep in his chest. He was dead by the time he hit the ground.
"It's not too bad." Blood trickled from a tear in his arm. "As we all suspected, William Roxton was not his brother." He examined the rip in his shirt sleeve. "In any sense."
"You should be grateful he was a lousy shot."
Their laughter rose from relief.
"Let's get you to Assai's village. You can mend there. In a couple of weeks you'll be good as new and ready to start down."
He allowed the woman to slide her arm around his waist and support him. "I don't know if that's what I want now, Veronica."
Puzzled she guided him to a rock and helped him sit down. "But don't you want to go home?"
"I joined this expedition for the story of a lifetime. I can't write this. No one will believe me. Then practically speaking, I'd have to walk hundreds of miles through the Amazon jungle alone. I don't even know the way." He reached for her hand. "I don't want to be alone anymore."
She studied the hand that held her own. "Then let's go home."
Malone twisted back to see Roxton's body. "We can't just leave him."
Veronica steered them in the direction of the tree house. "Sure we can. He appreciated the natural order of things."
"What time is it now?"
Challenger's pocket watch chimed her answer. It was midnight.
Roxton contorted and gasped for air.
Ned rushed to his side and helped Marguerite raise him into a sitting position. His body shook as he continued to cough and gulp down air.
"Roxton," Marguerite pulled him to her. She stroked his hair and cheeks. "It's okay. We're here. We're all here."
Still trembling he clutched her. Veronica wrapped a blanket around his shoulders. "Roxton, do you know where you are?"
"Some village," he stammered out. "Isadore..."
Challenger squatted down in front of him. "Do you have any idea what happened to you?"
"I was dreaming." He accepted the glass of water from Ned and took several sips. "You were there," he nodded at the reporter. "And you, and you." He stroked Marguerite's hair. "And you."
"Take it easy, Dorothy," she laughed, relief relaxing the lines on her face. "You gave us quite a scare."
"You slept like the dead, old boy," Challenger observed sharing in the release.
Roxton attempted to stand.
"What are you doing?" Marguerite pulled him back to the blanket.
"I've got to walk around."
"Maybe fresh air would do him some good."
"Okay, beautiful dreamer," Marguerite locked her arms around him as he tried to stay balanced. "Let's get you outside."
Veronica held the door for them. She left it ajar, but Marguerite noticed her slip away.
Roxton stumbled to one of the porch's posts. "What a dream I had. It was so real, Marguerite."
She eased up behind him, steadying him. "Challenger said you were in a coma. For hours you didn't move. You barely breathed." She leaned against him. "Roxton, I was so scared."
"You were scared." He emitted an uncomfortable laugh. "I died, Marguerite. Instead of me shooting William, he shot me."
"Oh, John." Her words were more than sympathetic. She had first hand experience of the horror of confronting your past.
"All these years I've lived with the guilt. Hell, I'll always live with the guilt, but for a while - how long was I asleep?"
"Three hours and ten minutes."
"For three hours and ten minutes there was no guilt and, I guess, my mind asked those questions I never dared before. I'd always wished I had never shot him or had died in his place... but I never imagined what life would be like if he had lived and I had died."
She slid her hand into his. "Care to talk about it?"
Storm clouds tinted the moonlight, leaving the shadows around her face murky and unreal. He touched her features as though remembering them from another time. "If I don't talk about it, I may bust."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"In my dream, the estate was in ruin. William never was good with money. He never had to be. Our father handled everything and if he was too busy then so was William, so I took care of it. That was the way it always was. William was the oldest, but he was almost there for show. They were always representing the family at this function or that party or at court. That's why I took up hunting, anything to get me off the estate and out of England. William only left our parents' hold once - with me to the jungle." He turned away from Marguerite, preferring the misty rain. "When I returned neither of my parents could stand the sight of me. They retreated into their rooms. My father from shame; my mother, well, William was definitely Mother's favorite."
"Your mother never took the time to know you."
He smiled. There were times the woman could touch his soul. "Anyway, in this dream, William returned home from Africa. But he caved into mother's demand and married even produced her a grandchild. Yet he still tried to be me. He even went on this expedition." He covered his face with his hands. "Dear God, Marguerite, you were ripped apart by raptors because of him." He drew her close, his fingers absently touching her, assuring himself she was real. "Summerlee and Challenger died because he was a ..." Roxton couldn't utter the word.
"Coward," Marguerite whispered.
"He just never needed to be strong. There was always someone else to... to… Eh, it was just a dream."
"What was it that Isadore said? 'Gift us with the release from our pasts.'"
Roxton looked past her into the starless sky.
"John, in your dream, maybe William wasn't being you but following the destiny of the person who lived. Maybe that's what Isadore..."
A half-hearted smile formed on his lips, his eyes searching the dark. "You honestly think she put something in my drink?"
"Was I actually eaten by raptors?" They'd talk more about it later when the pain subsided. "I trust I gave them indigestion."
Finally he looked at her again. "Like you said, it was a dream."
"I never met your mother or brother or father, but I'm sure I know them through you. You are the best of them." His eyes glistened with memories and she saw his image of her in them. "You are the best man," she exhaled.
His eyebrows lifted in expectation.
Marguerite yanked herself from those grey eyes. "The only man that could...I think could..." The woman let out a long sigh. "Oh, kiss me and shut me up."
As always, Lord John Roxton did as she asked.