Fine Feathered Friends
Summary: Rescue is on the horizon, but so is something else
Note: This story is reposted from a site no longer available. This was written in response to Lady P's Trapped challenge. So to her is owed the inspiration credit. And many thanks to Lora for her comments and logic questions.
Disclaimer: Borrowed the characters.
In brief: sometime into Season 4
"A plane?" Roxton finished for her.
Jaw clenched, Marguerite listened to the sound. "Well, is it?" she demanded.
Roxton held his hat on his head as he spun around searching the sky. "I'm not sure, Marguerite." From their vantage point on the hillside, they'd soon see it. "It could just be a clap of thunder echoing in the valley." Rubbing his neck, he lowered his head.
"There!" Her extended arm almost smacked him in the jaw.
Roxton cupped his hands around his eyes, shielding them from the hot afternoon sun. "It is! By God, it is!"
They faced each other grinning, neither finding words in their excitement. In the distance a signal fire flared to life. "That's George. He must be at the windmill." Her voice was breathless. "They'll see it won't they, Roxton? The people in the plane? They'll see it?"
Sparks drifted into the sky from the flames. "If not, Challenger'll burn the whole bloody plateau down."
Marguerite took his arm. "We're going home," she whispered. "No more being hot. Nice bubble baths. Lost in Harrods. Meeting your..."
Roxton turned slightly, catching the embarrassment on her cheeks. "Meeting my what, Marguerite?"
The woman ignored his inquisitive smile. "There, John. There!" The plane banked slowly eastward toward the fire. "They've seen it!" Grabbing his hand, she dragged him down the hillside.
"Marguerite, careful." He tugged on her arm, slowing them both down. "You'll kill us before we even get down there."
Exhaling irritably through her teeth, Marguerite jerked her hand away and charged down the hill.
Roxton heard it before he saw it. A deafening screech came from above. Then a shadow covered him. "Marguerite, down!"
Without hesitation, the woman dropped to her knees. It was a long time ago when she'd ignore that apprehensive cry in his voice. A rhythmic wind blew her hat off, twisting her black hair into the air with it.
It was cold beneath its shadow. The creature circled her once more. Then again. Its clacking jaws opened into a screech of discovery. Marguerite fought the urge to run. Roxton would tell her when to move. Her arms tightened against her chest. The shadow moved away. She chanced a movement of her head to see above herself. The pterodactyl's huge wings spread out as its head cocked listening. The plane engine grew louder.
A strong hand snatched her to her feet. "It's heading toward the plane."
"We've got to do something." That same strong hand held her in place.
"There's nothing we can do."
"We-we can warn them," she whispered.
"If they don't see that thing flying at them..." Roxton almost laughed. He'd flown enough to picture the pilot's expression at seeing a dinosaur.
The plane dropped as close to the treetops as it dared. The pilot had seen the creature heading toward him. The roar of the engine echoed across the hillside. A primal scream followed as the pterodactyl swooped down. Its claws barely missed the left wing. The plane sped forward as the dinosaur soared back into the sky.
"It's coming down for the kill," Roxton hissed. Stepping away from Marguerite, he shouldered his rifle and took aim. "Damn." The gun dropped to the ground. "Damn."
Marguerite returned to his side, taking his arm. "You're too far away, John." She couldn't take her eyes away. The huge pterodactyl angled its wings slightly, speeding up its downward loop.
Abruptly Roxton turned, wrenching Marguerite with him. "It's another plane!" The drone of a second engine deafened them as it flew over.
Marguerite clamped her hands over ears. "What is that noise?"
Roxton couldn't hear her to offer an answer. The burst of machine gun fire cut through the sky.
"Yes!" The former soldier shouted into the sky. "They've artillery!"
The first round missed the creature. The inexperienced shooter couldn't estimate the incredible speed of the beast. The pterodactyl drove down onto the first plane, shredding the left wing. Another burst of gunfire deafened them all. The creature spun in the sky. Blood rained from its leg. Screaming in pain the pterodactyl flew into the clouds toward the mountains.
"That plane's in trouble."
Three distinct flames broke from the signal fire. Two of the torches ran parallel into the field near the windmill. The third remained stationary, waving in the direction of the other two. The damaged plane listed from side to side as its pilot fought for control. From their vantage point, the pair could make out the landing gear was minus a wheel.
"You can do it," Roxton urged though clenched teeth. "Hold her. Level her wings."
The second plane flew into formation behind it. The sun glinted off the metal of its gun as it turned the direction the pterodactyl had disappeared.
"Don't worry about the overgrown bird, my friend. Get your wingman down." Roxton slid his arm around Marguerite.
The first plane had no choice but to trust the torchbearers. The improvised runway was narrow, trees on one side and a cliff on the other. As the plane thudded to the ground, the landing gear dug deep into the dirt. The torches dropped to the ground as the bearers charged toward the out-of-control aircraft. Veronica outran Malone. She understood his hand signals and threw her weight against the tail. Malone was next to her in seconds, shoving as he ran. The plane veered toward the trees. The propeller plowed through a thicket as the plane slowed. Finally it lodged in the base of a huge banana tree.
Minutes later the second plane landed, stopping well short of the cliff.
"You can breathe now, Marguerite," Roxton pointed out through a huge grin.
"They did it!" she screamed.
He scooped up her hat and planted it on her head. "Let's go meet them."
Malone slid to his knees and searched under the plane. "It's an oil leak. We'd better hurry!"
"Let's get you out of there." Challenger grabbed the shaken pilot around the chest. His eyes widen and he muttered an apology as he re-situated his hands. Helping her to the ground, Challenger touched the brim of his hat. "I am terribly sorry, madam."
"Madam," Veronica echoed.
"Lady Carolyn Reese to be precise." Removing her helmet, she revealed a huge smile. "And when rescuing me from a crashed plane, Professor Challenger, feel free to grab wherever is necessary."
Laughing, Malone slapped the older man on his shoulder. "We'd best move away."
Veronica broke the mood. "You know Challenger?"
"Of him. I know of him." The pilot and gunner from the other plane joined the group. They both removed their flying gear. "Bloody hot," the younger of the two remarked.
"I'll take the heat." He extended his hand to Challenger. "But I'd never have taken the odds we'd have found you. Lord Phillip Reese. My wife is a cousin to..."
"Lord John Roxton," the self-same man professed.
"Johnnie!" Lady Reese dropped her jacket and ran to her cousin.
Roxton caught her in a tight hug. They both laughed with relief and disbelief as they studied each other. "What the bloody hell are you doing here?"
"Something to do," she shrugged still laughing. "You know me, London is deadly dull in the winter."
The younger man stepped onto the damaged plane's wing and quickly tossed out four duffels. The weight of the one Malone picked-up took him by surprise. He felt the butts of several rifles on one end.
The stranger extended his hand to Malone. "Wayne Clayton. No title."
Malone shook his head. "Ned Malone, also titleless. And may I say whether you were flying or shooting, you were very good."
"Flying." His reluctant smile vanished as Lord Reese put his arm around his wife. The man edged away from the group, observing the reunion from a distance.
"John, ol' boy." He sized up the man in front of him. "I never thought we'd find you. Oh, hell, I honestly thought you were dead." Reese took Roxton's hand.
"Not Johnnie," his wife declared.
"True. You were quite confident."
"Where are my manners?" Roxton smiled sensing the scowl from behind him. "This is Miss Marguerite Krux."
"The financier. You are not very popular with Lady Roxton." Reese laughed. "She places all blame on you for this fool-hardy expedition."
Roxton continued before Marguerite could. "And this is George Challenger."
Lady Reese chuckled at the professor's blush. "Yes, we've met."
"Ned Malone. And Miss Veronica Layton."
"Fashions are most interesting here." Lord Reese took Veronica's offered hand and kissed it. "Perhaps you should do a little shopping before we leave, darling."
Lady Reese ignored her husband, instead focusing on Ned. "The reporter. I trust you'll have some incredible tales for your paper."
Ned managed a hospitable smile. It had been so long since he'd considered escaping the plateau, he'd forgotten about his journals as references for newspaper articles.
Clayton stepped forward, gesturing at the sky. "Now that the niceties are out of the way, will someone tell me what the bloody hell that was?"
"That, my friend," Ned smirked, "was a pterodactyl."
The pilot stared at the shredded wing of the crashed plane. "A what?"
"A flying dinosaur," Challenger explained, beaming.
"And before Challenger launches into a lecture, let's get you home." Veronica picked up a jacket from the ground. "You've had a quite a trip. You'd probably like to rest"
"And I for one," Challenger directed them toward a well worn path into the jungle, "Would like to hear all about your journey. We've never been able to navigate the wind currents."
Marguerite lagged behind. Veronica startled her as she took position beside her. "Just like old home week," she remarked to the younger woman.
"You'd be the same way if it was your friends, Marguerite."
"Oh, yes. You've met some of my friends."
Veronica stooped slightly to examine her friend's face. "They're cousins, Marguerite."
"I don't know what you could mean by that." She quickened her pace and caught up with the others.
"Good grief." Lord Reese accepted the wine glass from Challenger. "Here we've all imagined you barely surviving in a grass hut God knows where and you've been ..." He gestured at the well kept room and its library. "Here." His eyes traveled from Veronica to Marguerite. "With very little incentive to leave, I must say."
"I wouldn't say that, Phillip. We all have lives to return to in London. George has a wife..."
"Yes," Lady Carolyn interrupted. "We contacted her for any copies of your notes, maps, anything that would get us on your trail." The woman searched the room for her backpack. Retrieving it from beneath several others, she extracted a small envelop from one of its numerous pockets. "Your wife, Professor, supplied us with quite a lot of information and included this, just in case we found you." She passed Challenger the letter.
"Jessie?" Challenger touched the paper fondly, weighing it in his hand. "I think I'd like to open this in my room. If you all will excuse me."
Marguerite listened to the sympathetic silence. The others, with their nods and half smiles, reassured Lady Carolyn that Challenger would be fine. Distressed, the woman lingered in the middle of the room turning several times from her husband toward Challenger's room. Roxton's cousin was tall and slender with few curves. Marguerite noticed her husband had only reacted to her, his actions sparked more by Veronica and herself. She let out a long sigh. How long had it been since she had to assess people of this sort?
Roxton held out a chair for Carolyn. "He'll be fine."
Clayton bent over a photograph. "Isn't there someone else? Arthur Summerlee? He..."
"Is missing," Malone stated flatly. "We're all hoping he'll return to us eventually."
"I hope it's soon." Reese stood. "Because we're getting off this plateau. Even with only one plane, I'll get everyone down one at a time if we have to."
Roxton sipped his wine. "Generous offer. But that plane of yours may be repairable. There's another downed plane a few miles to the west."
"Of course," Ned set forward. "It could provide some spare parts."
Roxton offered a toast toward Challenger's room. "And George Edward Challenger can fix anything."
"Here, here!" The English aristocrats took to there feet, touching glasses.
Roxton turned to his still-seated friends and Clayton. "Well, come on, you four."
Malone rose, his eyes on Veronica. His glass clinked against Roxton's. "To Challenger, inventor extraordinaire."
Lifting her glass, Marguerite offered a salute. "To George." As they drank, she observed Lady Reese closely. "Watch this," she spoke into her glass.
Veronica leaned closer. "What did you...?"
Lady Reese dropped dramatically into her chair. Even Malone rushed to her side, though with the other three gentlemen on their knees or steadying her from behind and beside, he had little room.
"Phillip, my dear, please fetch me a wet towel." Her long fingers clutched Roxton's arm.
"Oh, brother." Marguerite downed the remaining wine in her glass.
Veronica guided Reese in the kitchen. A moment later he returned with a damp towel. "Here, my darling." Tenderly he dabbed her cheeks, then lifted her auburn hair and laid the towel around her neck.
Roxton steadied the woman as she stood. "You three have got to be exhausted. Let's get you some place to rest. I'll bunk with Ned, so you two may have my room." He shot a sheepish grin at Ned. "Clayton, there's a small room near Challenger's lab. No view, but a bed. Let's get you settled, then in a few hours, we'll call you for dinner."
Roxton cleared his throat. "Lord and Lady Reese are accustomed to a more gentile life. And dressing for dinner would be a compliment to their effort, their rescue." Veronica's snarl proved difficult to overcome. He turned to Marguerite. "Marguerite, surely you wouldn't mind dressing up a little?"
Malone set a plate of peeled fruit on the table. "I'm cooking. As long as someone leaves me hot water for a shower, I don't care."
Veronica tossed a fork on the table. "I'll do it for you, not them."
"I'll go talk to Challenger." Marguerite fled the dining area. A quick check showed Challenger was not in room. She smiled to herself. Why should this day be different from any other day? Whether in London or the on plateau, Challenger would be in his lab.
The scientist sat in the middle of the bench near one of the vents Malone had cut out of the wall. An exotic fragrance from a nearby vine competed with the chemical tingle in the air.
Challenger spoke first. He was relieved it was Marguerite. Sentimentality was the last emotion Marguerite allowed herself. "How's it going back there? I heard them talking about flying us off the plateau."
She joined him on the bench. "Well, Ned is cooking to make himself too busy to talk to Veronica. Veronica is producing from somewhere china and silver that I've never seen before. And Roxton keeps looking at me wondering, afraid of what I might say to embarrass him in front of his relations. And, yes, Lord Reese will rescue us all. Carry us down the side of the plateau on his back, I daresay, if that's what it takes."
"Well," he patted her knee. "Malone and Veronica haven't decided what path their lives are going to take. Right now I believe they're in the flirting stage. Again." He turned slightly. Marguerite stared at the opposite wall as though all answers lay behind it. "And as always you're too hard on yourself. And him. When are you ever going to throw caution to the wind and trust someone?"
She moved closer to him, laying her head on his shoulder. "I trust you George."
Her actions elicited a chuckle from the man. "But you're not in love with me, Marguerite."
Hesitantly, she touched the letter he still clutched. "Good news?"
Challenger snorted. "I love and trust my wife, young woman. She states she's confident I'm still alive for she would have it no other way. A page of the letter contains results of the experiments she's continuing in my absence."
Marguerite straightened, her lips twisted in disdain. "You're kidding."
"Oh, no. Science is important to both of us. Science is what we have in common. She didn't marry me for my family name or fortune. We both love science. Jessie can hold her own with any of my colleagues, and me for that matter. Society is what held her back. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if when I return, I'll have some incredible cure to my credit."
"George, that's ridiculous, women..."
He rose, stretching and groaning. "We've had female queens, Marguerite, but no prime ministers, or generals..."
"There was one." Marguerite flashed a knowing smile. "And didn't we burn her at the stake?"
"She was French."
"Well, that excuses it."
"You know very well what I meant. You've experienced the prejudice against strong women."
Her eyes closed. "And I've used it to my advantage many times."
"Except on Roxton. Was he the first man who appreciated...?"
"No," she tickled the beard on his chin. "That was you. That night in your study you knew..."
He bowed his head slightly. "And for that, you may thank Jessie."
"And when next I see her, I will." Marguerite laughed at him. "Till then: thank you."
"Trust him, Marguerite. You know trust isn't whether you've been intimate with your body. It's your heart."
"Why, George. How bohemian of you."
"You look stunning."
"Keep in mind I'm only doing this for Roxton."
Malone brushed a few water drops from his hair. "Roxton is a lucky man."
"Oh? And why is that?" Roxton shrugged his shoulders to encourage the jacket to hang right. Veronica stepped from the shadow of her doorway. The man broke into a grateful grin. Her blonde hair was pulled tightly back, leaving her bangs to tickle her brow. The pale blue gown would be one of her mother's and was only the second one he had ever seen on the woman. Kissing her hand, he placed it on Malone's arm. "Thank you both for putting up with my rather haute request."
"Veronica, you look ravishing." Marguerite stepped into the narrow hallway. Taking Veronica's arm, she led her away from the appreciative stares. "Shall we dine?"
Roxton and Malone lingered for a moment admiring the supple movements of the two women before them. Marguerite's hair was braided then twisted onto the top of her head affording Lord Roxton an appreciative view of the back of her low cut gown. The hunter let out a long sigh and shoved his friend forward.
Challenger sat at the head of the table nibbling on a pineapple slice. His bowtie slightly askew, he still cut an elegant figure of a man. "My compliments to the chef. It smells very good."
Malone nodded his thanks. "Chicken ala Arthur. House specialty."
"What is that delightful smell?" Lord Reese sniffed the air. Abruptly his lips dropped from their smile. "Don't tell me that's roasted dinosaur."
"No," Malone held a chair out for Veronica. "We'll acclimate you slowly. This is chicken."
Reese set by his wife. "You're telling me you eat dinosaur."
Veronica sipped the wine Roxton had poured into her glass. "Why not? They'd gladly eat us."
Clayton held his glass in the air. "Here. Here."
As they dined, Reese told their story. How he preceded his wife and Clayton with natives to carve out a runway. Then they flew the planes in and he'd continue up the river to carve out another makeshift landing site. Three times they'd done this. This morning they'd left the bearers at the basin with the barrels of gasoline and instructions to wait.
Clayton laughed. "We accomplished this by not paying them."
Roxton pushed away his plate. "We were almost slaughtered by head hunters at the base of the plateau."
"We saw signs of them, but we're hoping there's safety in numbers."
Challenger leaned comfortably back in his chair. "Exactly how many bearers did you bring, Lord Reese?"
"Fifty!" Marguerite gasped.
"Consider at each runway site we had to leave several behind to maintain it. And a canoe would only hold two barrels of gasoline."
Challenger shook his head. "The logistics are incredible."
Lord Reese took his wife's hand and kissed it. "This astonishing lady engineered it all."
Roxton refilled his glass. "I salute you, Carolyn. I-all of us owe you a debt of gratitude that will be hard to repay."
"So, Veronica," Carolyn dabbed her mouth with the linen napkin. "How did you end up here?"
"I was born here. This is my home."
"Really." The woman's eyes explored the room, seeing only makeshift furniture and primitive accents. "Your home." She fanned away the heat with a napkin. "Really."
Ned broke in before Veronica could respond. "Yes, Veronica's parents brought a large party here over twenty years ago."
"And your parents are with Professor Summerlee, I presume?"
Roxton straightened. "Carolyn, I hardly..."
"Oh, I am sorry, Veronica. That sounded horrid." The apologetic tone didn't match the disinterest in her face.
"Actually my father is buried a few miles from here. My mother..."
"Now I recall." The wistful look vanished from Reese's face. He wagged a finger toward Marguerite. "I'm so sorry, my dear," he smiled briefly at Veronica. "I didn't mean to interrupt, but I've been trying all evening to recall where I'd seen Miss Krux or someone fortunate enough to be her double. Of course, this probably isn't you. I only saw the singer once at a party, but she was as striking as you even from a distance. I recall the evening turning dull, and out of nowhere this vision broke into song. The hostess explained she was a singer from Paris. Beautiful voice. I dare say the entire room hushed to listen. Damn shame, as I recall. Her husband was quite a lout and one night almost strangled her to death. Rumor had it, she finally got her speaking voice back, but not her singing voice. The scoundrel had damaged her vocal chords so badly, she could never sing again. Damn shame."
Marguerite patted her lips then folded her napkin on the table. "I'm afraid that wasn't me, Lord Reese. Touching story, but Monte Carlo is always full of rumors of duels and love-struck suicides. Part of the ambiance, I must say." She stacked her plates. Roxton noticed a quiver to her hands. "I hate to break-up our gathering, but it's late. And when Lord John Roxton states he will get you up at dawn, rest assured, you will be up at dawn. I'd best clear the table. Our American reporter has taught us the democratic process of housework. Tonight he cooked," she chuckled, "Veronica set the table, Roxton acted as host and we never allow Challenger into the kitchen since there is too great a chance he might mistake it for his lab. So that leaves me to do the dishes. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to find an apron in the laundry."
Tossing his napkin onto the table, Roxton offered no excuse as he rose. "Pardon me."
"Speaking of my lab, I need to check on an experiment I was running." Challenger glanced in the direction of Marguerite's room, then quickly downed the steps to his lab.
"I'd best record your account while it's fresh in my mind. If you don't mind, I'd like you to read it later to verify the details." Malone snatched a book from the counter and was quickly lost in the shadows of the balcony.
Veronica stood, shoving her chair back. "I don't want to sit at the same table with you either." Lifting her skirt, the woman stormed to her room.
Lord Reese looked at the remaining diners. "Was it something I said?"
Lady Reese sipped her wine. "Always the gentleman, aren't you, my dear."
The woman sitting on the bed turned away from him. "Roxton, go away. I couldn't find an apron, so I'm just going to change my dress."
He didn't stir from the doorway. "And when did you get so concerned about housework?"
"You know how Veronica is about bugs in her kitchen." Her voice broke. Her arms locked around herself trying to stop the shaking. "Of course there are bugs everywhere else around this infernal place, why should her kitchen be the exception?" She paused hearing him shuffle in the doorway. "Please leave," she whispered.
His sudden weight next to her on the bed caused her to slide into him. She felt his calloused hands on her arms. "Marguerite."
Quickly she rubbed her checks. Glancing over her shoulder, she pushed a smile. "Really, Roxton. You don't believe that gibberish from Lord Reese, do you? Stories like that are cheap."
Her forced expression further convinced him of the truth to Reese's story. "How did you know it was Monte Carlo? Reese never said where he was."
Marguerite twisted around, her eyes wide, her lips quivered for something to say. Quickly the mask returned. "I just assumed. Where else would such a wild story surface? Surely you've been there and heard..."
His hand touched her cheek. "Marguerite. I've told you all your secrets are safe with me."
She managed a curt laugh. "Well, if all of Monte Carlo knew of this, it would hardly be a secret, would it, Roxton?" Taking to her feet, she walked hastily to the window, the sudden fresh air helping her composure. "And this is a major reason why we'd never work. Your relations, your friends would always be guessing, however incorrectly, about my past."
He stood behind her. Tenderly he returned a stray strand from her neck into the pile of black hair. "I hate Monte Carlo."
"So do I," she whispered. Swallowing, her voice stilled. "Of course for very different reasons, I'm sure. I was there once..."
"Shhh." Gently, Roxton pulled her to him.
It was so easy to lean against the man. Closing her eyes, a long sigh escaped her. No matter how she tried, she'd always be mimicking the Carolyn Reeses of the world. There was no schooling, no family behind her. "You deserve so much more than me."
He kissed her temple. "I don't deserve you, but I keep trying. I murdered my brother, Marguerite. In truth, I murdered my father as sure as I'd pulled the trigger on him too."
She whirled around catching his hands, clutching them to her cheek. "John, no."
"I really didn't deserve to live, but I had a family name to maintain which was the least I owed those two men. There is nothing in your past, Marguerite, that could be worse than that."
Bringing his hands to her lips, she kissed them. "John, you're..."
"Tell me, Marguerite. Have you done worse than that? Of all the things you've perpetrated, have you killed your own father and sibling?" Her tears dropped on his hands.
"Quality versus quantity. Always a hard choice."
They both laughed. Drawing her to him, he kissed her. "Quality?" His next kiss was long as his fingers caressed the soft skin barely covered by the thin silk. "Or quantity?" A soft laugh followed him as he lightly kissed her checks then lips then nose. His voice was a soft whisper in her ear. "I killed them, Marguerite. I can admit that to you and know you'll never judge me or pity me or despise me. You'll only..."
"Well, doesn't this change things." Lady Reese turned from her prying view of the touching scene. Taking the man's hand they returned to the main room. "My cousin is a gentleman. And that little scene informs me he won't leave first. He'll want Challenger, then Miss Krux, Malone then himself to fly down."
"What about Veronica?" Clayton rubbed his cheek against her hair, smelling the jungle flower she had woven into the bun.
"You heard her: this is her home. She won't be leaving. But we need Roxton to go down first. We can handle him alone. But there's quite a little bond between these people."
"And I didn't agree to kill four people."
Marguerite sat at the table absorbed in her coffee and thoughts. Veronica smiled noticing the woman's face. No red nose or puffy eyes. Roxton had managed to console her by some means.
"Coffee? I smell coffee?"
Marguerite's expression hardened. "You drink coffee, Lord Reese?" she inquired politely. "Ned introduced us to it. The Zanga grow the plants." She sat a cup in front of him. "I must admit I start every morning with it."
Roxton stepped into the room grinning. "And I must say we try to have plenty on hand. Without it, the mornings are long."
The object of his teasing only smiled and handed him a cup. "Lord Roxton, you enjoy it now and then."
He blew on the hot liquid before taking a sip. "But I shall always be a tea man."
"God bless the King," Malone laughed, his arm stretching for the cup Marguerite offered him.
"No singing, please," Lady Reese snapped, her amused eyes glancing Marguerite's way.
Malone stepped between the two women. "I thought of this last night, Marguerite. Do you remember the plane we stumbled on with Summerlee?"
"That strange old woman. She was wearing radio headphones."
Veronica refilled her water glass. "I remember you mentioning that. But you said the T-Rex ended up stepping on it."
Lord Reese collapsed into a chair. "A Tyrannosaurus-Rex?"
"But," Malone continued, "the engine may still be intact."
"That was two years ago. It's a long shot." Roxton took another bite of banana, his eyes lingering on Marguerite. They had eventually cleaned-up the kitchen last night. Or it may have been morning before they'd gotten around to it.
"Do you think you could find it again?" Challenger scratched his unshaven neck.
Malone glanced at Marguerite. "We could try."
"Well," Clayton appeared from the balcony. "First we should take a look at the engine of our plane. Worse case, we've some spare parts back at the base camp."
"You're right about evaluating the problem first, Mister Clayton." Challenger's expression grew thoughtful. "But if we can have both planes in the air, I think we'd have a better chance of evading another pterodactyl."
Reese glanced around the room for his rifle and backpack. "You think that creature will show-up again?"
"From what Roxton and Marguerite saw, I'd say it was attracted to the noise of your engine."
"So, we need both planes in the air, the one to provide cover for the other."
"Well, that's a pickle," Reese snorted.
Challenger fetched his hat from the rack by the elevator. "Not yet. Let's assess the downed craft and go from there."
Veronica cleared her throat. The look she shot Roxton was a mixture of reminder and irritation.
"But first, everyone, we need to discuss something."
A backpack slid down Lady Reese's arm, loudly striking the floor. "Can't it wait until tonight? You got us up at dawn because you said the heat wouldn't be as bad."
"There's a certain condition that you three need to understand and agree to."
Reese leaned his rifle against the wall. "And what on earth could that be?"
Veronica folded her arms, stepping in front of Roxton. "You cannot tell anyone how to get to the plateau nor anything of what you've seen."
Clayton walked past her to the elevator. "She's kidding, right?"
Malone took a deep breath. "No, she's not."
Scoffing Reese gestured at the pile of leather bound journals on a nearby table. "You mean to tell me you're not going to publish anything about your travels? I find that hard to believe."
Ned's lips tightened. "And you may be right. So when you finally get off the ground, I won't be going. This is my home now as well. As a journalist, I might be persuaded to write about this. So I'm not taking the chance. I'll be staying here."
Marguerite turned to him. Her smile mingled with a tear. "You're insane."
His eyes locked on Veronica. "Just hopeful."
Clayton emitted a rude noise. "That's one less trip we'll have to make. Doesn't matter to us. Let's get going."
Veronica blocked his way with her arm. "I need your word."
"Lady, I just want off this plateau. Besides, no one would believe me."
"My wife and I have no reason to go against your wishes, Miss Layton." He shook her hand.
The first four passengers went down in the elevator. Veronica fingered the trion around her neck. "Do you believe them?"
Marguerite shouldered her rifle. "Not a chance."
A vine had already attached itself to the propeller. Clayton cursed as he yanked it off.
Marguerite and Lady Reese took up positions off to the side with their rifles raised. They would make a lot of noise extracting the plane. And noise always attracted the curious, plant-eater and carnivore.
"Alright, everyone." Lord Reese joined his team on the left wing. "Push!"
Veronica steadied the tail section as the men pushed. Slowly the aircraft slipped out of the bushes and onto the dirt.
"A little more!" Veronica directed.
Abruptly the plane rolled nicely on its own power. Malone and Clayton snatched up two large stones and jabbed them under the plane's front wheels.
"Well done, everybody," Reese congratulated.
"Onto the next phase." Challenger stooped and gazed up at the engine. "It doesn't look too bad. The gasoline smell is gone." He sifted dirt through his fingers then smelt his hand. "The dirt doesn't have an odor." He stepped back peering at the plane. "Ned, bring over the step stools and let's get to work."
An hour turned into two. Malone, Clayton, and Challenger intermittently glanced up requesting water or a clean cloth.
Marguerite sat on a log contemplating the rising pile of cleaning rags. One of her favorite shirts was in that pile. There comes a time when linen cannot be repaired without looking like a patchwork quilt. That same shirt had a small stain of her own blood from a knife meant for a king. What an odd day that had been, walking back from Gawain's camp. Roxton looked at her different, that Cheshire cat grin looked inside her instead of undressing her. He probably never gave her credit for that kind of courage until then.
"Hey," Veronica waved a hand in front of her face. "Do you see something out there?"
"No. Just thinking about the day's worth of laundry piling up over there." With a sigh, she stretched and smiled. "Did you know Ned would want to stay?"
"I..." Color came to her cheeks as she looked away. "I had hoped he would."
"So you two..."
"Yes. Talking. Like you and Roxton were talking last night."
It was Marguerite's turn to blush and turn away. "Roxton is a very good talker."
"So is Ned."
The two women laughed at themselves.
"Is this a private conversation?" Lady Reese shifted the rifle to her other shoulder. "John found some interesting tracks he said and went off to check them out."
"Did he?" Veronica took the opportunity and trotted off in the direction Roxton had taken into the jungle.
"Veronica, wait." Marguerite's good mood dissolved into annoyance.
"Is it always so frightfully hot?" Lady Reese fanned herself with a handkerchief.
From the corner of her eye, Marguerite noticed her sewing handiwork of Roxton's initials on one of its sides. "You get used to it," she muttered.
"I doubt that. Women of breeding..."
"Should know when they're intruding." Marguerite took to her feet and marched toward the plane. "Any guess on the extent of the damage to this damn thing?"
Malone saw over her shoulder the figure of Lady Reese smirking. "We may actually be ready to try it. What do you say, gentlemen?"
Reese wiped the sweat from his face with an oil-stained rag. "Clayton, if you would do the honors."
The pilot slid from his ladder over to the side of the plane then easily hoisted himself into the pilot's seat.
"We're actually quite lucky, Marguerite." Challenger added a rag to the pile. "The structure of the wing is intact. We'll take some skin from the balloon and fix her right up."
Reese waved everyone away. "Stand back! Start her up, Clayton."
The engine sparked to life. Their brief celebration ended with a rain of oil coating Reese and the ground.
"Turn it off! Turn it off!"
Roxton and Veronica joined the group. "Looks like it's back to the drawing board, gents."
Reese scooped up the last clean rag and tried in vain to wipe off the oil.
His wife stepped away. "Good Lord, Phillip." The handkerchief appeared in her hand again as she walked past Marguerite and returned to the log.
Marguerite inhaled sharply. "So, what were these tracks you found?"
Roxton noticed her eyes focus on the handkerchief. "I merely loaned it to her so..."
"The tracks, Roxton," Veronica prodded.
"Uh, yes, well, I've never seen anything like them before."
"And neither have I," Veronica added. "They look like infant T-Rexes, but they're too heavy."
"And there were too many."
"Too many," Marguerite repeated. "What does that mean?"
"We saw maybe twenty, maybe sixty separate sets."
"Sixty," Marguerite gasped. "We've never seen a herd of anything that large. Challenger will love this."
"Well, we'll have to be more cautious until we figure out what this is."
"Here is our culprit." Challenger brandished the cracked part like a prophet his staff. "The hose I can repair. But this. We'll need a new one of these."
"Okay, that's our cue to head for the other wrecks."
Reese displayed the filth all over him. "Any chance for a quick trip back to the tree house for fresh clothes?"
Roxton flashed a sympathetic smile. "Well, if Malone's guess is right, they've got a four hour walk ahead of them. We just have under two. Ned, take Marguerite, Veronica, Challenger and Carolyn. The rest of us will detour by the tree house." He took Veronica aside. "Keep everyone together. And stay sharp. Give yourself plenty of time to get back to the tree house by dark."
Wearing her characteristic half smile, Veronica saluted him. "Yes, sir."
The three men halted at the sounds. "Was that gunfire?" Reese asked turning toward the echo.
Roxton wheeled the other way. "That was gunfire. Come on!"
They charged back toward the windmill and the planes.
Roxton leapt off the path to land next to Veronica. The woman stood with her arms folded, smiling. He followed her gaze. "What the hell?"
Marguerite held Lady Reese face down on the grass. The other woman's hand snapped loose and struck Marguerite's chin. She tumbled onto the ground stunned.
"What's going on here?" Roxton demanded. "Why haven't you stopped this?"
Veronica shrugged. "Because, overall Marguerite's winning."
Roxton shed his backpack, pistols and rifle then waded between the two women. Seconds later he lay flat on his back nursing his jaw. Malone helped him to his feet. "Why haven't you tried to stop this?"
"Look what happened to you!" he pointed out.
"And what's your excuse?"
Challenger pursed his lips. "Like you, I just arrived and hadn't properly accessed the situation. Besides," he added grinning, "As Finn would have said, Marguerite's kicking her butt."
Marguerite slapped Carolyn's hand from her hair. "You fight like a proper school girl!" she screamed, then followed up with a right to her jaw.
"Marguerite!" Roxton snatched her by the waist. Lady Reese took advantage and slapped her hard. Squirming from Roxton's hold, Marguerite kicked her in the abdomen. The other woman doubled up.
"I may be a lot of things, but I have never been..."
Roxton grabbed her so tightly he jerked the breath out her. "Phillip, hold your wife!"
Clayton was closer. As he scooped her into his arms, the proper British lady landed one in his eye. "Give it a rest, Carolyn."
Dragging Marguerite near the plane, Roxton dropped her on the pile of oily rags. "Calm down or I'll sit on you myself." He chanced stepping back. "Will you please tell me what started this? And what was the shooting about?"
"She shot at me," Marguerite accused.
"Carolyn shot at you?" Roxton repeated incredulous.
"Yes! I was only defending myself."
"Why on earth would Carolyn shoot at you?"
"I pointed out the obvious, Roxton."
"She impugned my honor!" came a shout from the other couple.
"And what..." Roxton looked past Marguerite. "What the hell is that?"
Marguerite stood. "Let me tell you what the obvious is. You men..."
"Be quiet, Marguerite, and come toward me. Slowly."
There was that apprehension in his voice. Urgent but subtle this time. She caught his extended hand. "Behind me," he ordered. His rifle and pistols were over in the clearing. "One step at a time, Marguerite. Slowly."
"What is it?" She backed-up with him, their steps matching.
Suddenly Ned stood in front of them, his rifle at his shoulder. "Did this make your tracks?"
"Yes," Roxton wheezed bolting toward his weapons. Frantically he holstered his pistols and took aim with his rifle.
"Where are the rest of them?" Malone joined the group, his rifle still aimed at the small creature paused at the jungle's edge.
"We're not waiting to find out. Come on everybody. Back to the..."
"Roxton." Veronica's voice was level. She pointed to the second and third creature that joined their sibling.
Challenger edged forward. "Are those feathers?"
"And teeth and claws," Marguerite continued.
"Veronica, take point. Ned, Clayton, you're with me. Carolyn, Phillip stay with Marguerite and Challenger. Keep your rifles ready."
Veronica blocked their entry into the jungle. "I think I know where the rest are them are. Roxton, we're surrounded."
Phillip discarded the tiny creatures with a wave of his hand. "What's the worry? They're so small. We can handle them."
Razor sharp teeth tore into his jacket rending cloth and skin. Two more leapt out of the shadows onto him. Marguerite used her rifle as a club. Two of them dropped from his back unconscious. Veronica snatched another by its neck and snapped it. They were quickly replaced by three more.
"Why are they going for Reese?"
Malone grabbed Reese by the arm, preventing him from falling over. Marguerite clubbed two more to death. Ned shot the third. "Clayton, help me. If he falls to the ground, they'll swarm on him!" Almost reluctantly Clayton did as he Malone asked.
Roxton shot three as they ran out of the bushes. Marguerite appeared at his side, firing her pistol, killing four more. "I've got to reload," she shouted.
"Keep moving to the windmill. Everybody. At least we'll have a vantage point."
Challenger jumped onto the narrow deck, pulling Carolyn with him. Clayton and Malone slid Reese onto the wood floor. He was bleeding heavily. Ned drew his pistol, firing at the small creatures running in teams.
"This is actually amazing," Challenger observed, killing two of the dinosaurs.
"Veronica!" Ned extended his hand, clasping hers, and swung her onto the deck.
"Run, Marguerite!" Roxton ordered. He shot the three charging from their right.
"You go with me!"
"No wonder Carolyn shot at you." Grabbing her arm, the two raced the last few yards to the deck. Roxton leapt up, carrying her with him. Relaxing his grip, Marguerite screamed, her arms flaying for him. Roxton's hands locked on her wrists.
"Marguerite!" Veronica dashed forward. Two of the creatures held onto her shirt and skirt with their beaks. Veronica grabbed the first one from her shirt and snapped its neck. Impaling the other, she slung it from her blade onto the ground.
The remaining ones backed away disappearing into the jungle. The bushes shook with activity.
"Dear God," Challenger gasped. "How many of them are there?"
"You all right?" Roxton felt her trembling.
"Oh, sure. I've been attacked by everything else. Why not birds?" His arms steadied her.
"Do you need to reload? They'll be coming back."
"Yes," she nodded.
His eyes still locked on a pale Marguerite, he barked a question to Malone. "How's Reese?"
"He's bad, Roxton."
His nod and smile assuring her, Roxton turned to the others. "How bad? Can he make a run for it?"
Phillip sat propped against Malone. "I can make it with a little help."
Veronica leaned into Roxton. "And all that blood will attract every other predator."
"I think it already has!" Its roar shook the platform they stood on. "Any ideas?"
The explorers didn't speak only aiming whatever weapon they held. The T-Rex stomped toward them, then stopped. Its nostrils flared. Its head swung from them toward the jungle. Three of the small dinosaurs darted out, taunting the huge beast. One ran up to it. The T-Rex chomped down on it, then slung its head back for the meal to go down.
Immediately they swarmed. Ten, twenty, thirty of the creatures bolted out of the jungle and onto the T-Rex. Their beaks and claws latched onto its legs, stomach, and neck. The roars of pain were deafening.
Veronica shook Malone. "Come on this is our chance."
"Are you seeing this?" Challenger asked.
Roxton tugged on his arm. "She's right. This may be our only opportunity to get back to the tree house."
Ned and Clayton slid Reese's arms over their shoulders.
"As fast as we can, people."
They didn't stop running until they reached the tree house. Veronica held the gate as Malone and Clayton dragged the unconscious Reese to the elevator. Roxton slammed the gate shut behind him. His rifle still out in front of him, he mentally measured the distance from the ground to the first wire.
Veronica panted what he was thinking. "It's too high. They'll be able to get under it."
"Let's get upstairs. We can rest and get Phillip taken care of. Then decide our next move."
"Do you think they followed us?"
Malone fetched the first aid kit from the lab.
He paused in the main room. Lady Reese stood on the balcony clutching the railing. "He could use your support right now, Lady Reese."
"I can't." She turned away from Malone. Clayton entered from the kitchen, handing her a glass of water.
Marguerite and Challenger stripped what was left of the clothing from Reese. The stench of blood and oil was overpowering. "Bring me another bowl of water, Ned."
Roxton paced the balcony. As the sun disappeared, shadows inched over the vines and bushes making it harder to tell what watched him.
"What time is it?" Carolyn dropped onto the bench.
"Close to five o'clock, I guess."
"I shouldn't wonder at what you're thinking of me right now. I've never been able to stand the sight of blood. I remember when you fell out of that tree. Skinned your leg something terrible."
Roxton glanced her way and smiled. "I'm surprised you remember. There I am bleeding all over the driveway and everyone is rushing to you lying on the ground, fainted."
A clatter of bowls in the kitchen interrupted their memory. Marguerite leaned against the cabinet, inhaling the fresh air.
"Drink this." He waited as she swallowed a few sips. "How is he?"
"Worse than we thought."
Carolyn entered the room, her arms around her chest, her head hung.
Unimpressed, Marguerite ignored the woman. "Those claws went in deep. He lost a lot of blood on the way here." She slammed her glass down. "It would be considerate of you to at least go in to see him. He's asked for you several times."
Lady Reese nodded, slipping away toward the sleeping quarters,
"Marguerite, don't be too hard on her. She's been squeamish all..."
"I think he's going to die, John. The least she can do is sit with him."
There was little he could say. "Why don't you sit down? You've been in there the past three hours. I'll go help Challenger."
"No. It's bad, John. I'm used to it. Challenger wants us to keep the wounds cleaned. We sewed up the larger gashes. The problem is all the small ones. They won't stop bleeding."
She poured fresh water into a bowl. Roxton dabbed a towel into the water. "Hold on. You've got blood on your neck." As he rubbed the area, Marguerite winced. "That's your blood." Roxton lifted her hair.
"Veronica!" Roxton shoved Marguerite into a chair.
"Shhh, Reese is finally asleep." The blonde woman stopped her complaining upon seeing Roxton's face.
"Those dinosaurs got Marguerite on her back."
"I'm alright." She slapped his hand away. "At least I would be if you'd quit helping me."
Veronica borrowed the damp cloth from Roxton. "Let me see, Marguerite." Three thin scratches reached from the back of her shoulder to the middle ribs. "I need to clean these. They're not bad, but there's always a chance for infection. Come on, let's go to your room."
Roxton stood silent until they left the room, then returned to his vigil on the balcony.
Marguerite let out a long sigh.
From behind her Veronica dried off the wound. "Am I hurting you?"
"No." She held up the torn blouse. "This was the last blouse I had. With all that's been going on I haven't gotten around to the mending. I guess I'll just have to go topless."
"As tempting as that is to see the men's faces, I think I can find you something."
Marguerite feigned shock. "Veronica, Ned is definitely corrupting you." She buttoned on another camisole. Veronica held her robe out for her.
"Ned?" Veronica scoffed. "Come on. Let's get you another shirt."
Veronica closed the curtain behind them. After all these years Marguerite had never been in this room. It was a small storage room off Veronica's bedroom. She had moved all her parent's trunks there after Marguerite had rifled through them when the explorers had first arrived.
Marguerite lingered self-consciously by the door. "Look, Veronica, I'm sure I can borrow one of Roxton's shirts."
"Or maybe Lady Reese will loan you one of hers." Veronica unlatched one of the trunks. "Look, that day, that instance with the jacket, we were both acting like spoiled brats. It's been ridiculous and selfish of me to covet these things like my parents were coming back. I know my father isn't."
Marguerite stroked her blonde hair.
"I've noticed you altered some of Summerlee's shirts for Ned and Roxton. I don't know how your own clothing has lasted this long."
"Since I'm desperate, I'll accept one of your father's shirts. But your mother..."
Both women broke into a wide grin.
Veronica motioned her friend to sit beside her at the trunk. "You know there are two shirts in here that would be perfect for you." She stacked several articles of clothing to one side.
"Wait. May I?"
Veronica gave her a confused look and nodded.
Marguerite pulled out a corset. "Oh, my. Look at this. This is real whale bone. I've never seen one quite like this."
"You've worn one?"
"Oh, Veronica, there were fashions that you either wore one of these or your bre-figure fell out."
Veronica examined the intricate stitching. "I don't recall my mother ever wearing it."
"If there's a wedding dress in one of these trunks, then she wore it."
"How did you move?"
"That was the whole point, you couldn't. The prevailing thought was you were laced into the perfect female form."
The daughter thumped the stays. "This thing would stop a bullet."
"It could stop your breathing and that's been proven. Women used to faint all the time while wearing these."
Veronica folded the corset and returned it to the trunk. "Here." She handed Marguerite two shirts, one a sage green, the other ecru.
Marguerite hesitantly reached for them. "Are you sure?"
"I'm going to offer the others to Roxton, Ned and Challenger. You might as well get first choice."
"Oh, I'll have first choice. Who do you think will let down those sleeves for our English Lord?"
Marguerite leaned on the balcony next to him.
"I like your new shirt."
"Thank you. I'll take it in and up and fix the sleeves when we've got a little more free time."
"You all right?"
She shrugged off his concern. "Probably no showers for a few days, but I'm fine."
"Sponge baths, huh. You know I'm always available for those hard to reach areas."
Her attempt at indignation was foiled by her laughter. "Lord Roxton!" She saw his expression tense with concern. "What do you see?"
He nodded to his left. "In the bushes."
"That could me anything.," she hoped.
It wasn't. One of the feathered dinosaurs peered out. Scratching the dirt, its eyes searched the ground. Then it looked up.
Marguerite jumped back. "Can those things fly?"
"No, but I'm betting they can climb. And if they can, they'll be in the tree house in no time. Get everybody up here."
Challenger seized his rifle from the rack and stood with Roxton scrutinizing the jungle. "Besides the obvious questions about these new dinosaurs, what I'd like to know is why they only attacked Reese and Marguerite. Everyone else was just as available."
"I don't know, George. Maybe they moved a certain way that frightened them. Maybe they smelt different."
"Yes," Challenger hissed. Depositing his rifle on the table, Challenger ran back to the sleeping area. A few minutes later he returned holding Reese's torn and blood stained cloths.
Roxton hazarded a glance at the debris. "Blood? He wasn't bloodied until..."
"No. The oil. His cloths were saturated with it. And Marguerite had oil all over the back of her skirt from contact with those rags."
"That were also covered with oil."
Ned took position a few feet away. "But why oil, Professor? It's not something they eat."
"Who knows? We have no idea where these creatures came from. Maybe their original habitat had a predator with a similar scent."
A wry smile growing on his face, Roxton grabbed a piece of cloth. "One way to find out. Neddie-boy, hand me one of those spears." Wrapping the cloth on its tip, Roxton hurled the spear to the jungle's edge. Three of the creatures leapt on it, mauling and shredding the cloth until nothing was left.
"Good Lord." Challenger gazed at the death trap he held in his hand.
"Now what?" Marguerite snapped.
"Malone, what did you do with the water you used to cleanup Phillip?"
The man sighed and pointed over the railing.
"That explains why our little feathered friends are here."
"I repeat: now what?"
Ned did a double take on Marguerite. "Nice shirt."
"Thank you. But I repeat..."
"Now what," they chorused.
Marguerite snapped, "Very funny."
"You know if they can take down a T-Rex, there may not be predator that can handle them."
"A pack of raptors could take 'em down," Ned asserted.
"Or at least it'd be interesting to watch," Marguerite smirked.
Roxton winced at her. "If you're interested in that sort of thing."
"If those creatures multiply with no predator," Challenger continued, "Well, the whole balance of life on our side of the plateau could change."
"And not in our favor," Marguerite pointed out.
"Our best course of action is to kill as many as we can."
Roxton aimed his rifle. "Here's your chance."
"We can't let them under the fence!" Malone shouted over the gunfire.
At first they came in threes. Challenger posited they were testing their defenses. Malone and Veronica shifted to the other side of the balcony. Clayton and Challenger positioned themselves between the two areas. For five solid minutes they fired.
Roxton reloaded his rifle. "At this rate we'll be out of ammunition in about thirty minutes."
Ned grabbed a handful of shells. "They move so damn fast."
Marguerite's eyes narrowed. Her smile turned devious. "Then we have to slow them down. Hand the man a spear, Malone."
Roxton broke into a wide grin. Quickly he tied a piece of oil soaked cloth to the spear point. Where it landed four of the creatures swarmed. Marguerite and Ned easily picked them off.
"Let's see how long they can resist their nature." Veronica chose her spear, tied the cloth and hurled it a few feet to the left of Roxton's. Again Ned and Marguerite picked off the feeders.
By the time they had run out of spears, they had killed another twenty.
"Marguerite, that was brilliant." Challenger kissed her cheek. "Abso..."
Roxton waved them all quiet. Veronica saw the first one. It leapt from a nearby branch onto the rail. She dazed it with a decorative plate. Ned smashed its scull in with the butt of his rifle.
Challenger held up the carcass. "They look like birds. I wonder if they're edible?"
Roxton shifted his gaze to the trees around them. "His friends are probably thinking the same about you, George."
The scientist laid the creature on the table. Cautiously he lifted each appendage. With a pencil he gingerly stroked the feathers. "My first year of university I attended an exhibit of dinosaur bones. It was quite the rage. Even the Queen was there."
"You met the Queen," Marguerite gasped.
"Everyone there did," he shrugged, "but what was most interesting were the lectures. One in particular has always stuck in my mind. It was a debate on whether the dinosaur was a warm-blooded animal. A lone scientist took a stand. Of course supporters of the opposing argument lined the walls. But this man used the pterodactyl as a jumping off point: what if this creature evolved into a bird? I don't think the subject has ever been mentioned again in any bona-fide scientific circles. But look at this creature." He lifted several feathers up. "What if this is an evolutionary step?"
Marguerite fired into a tree. One of the creatures screeched as it dropped. "As long as it evolves back into its area of the plateau!"
"Here they come!"
Veronica darted to the laundry basket and snapped up a towel. Grabbing one of the oil lamps she dumped its contents on the towel. Tossing it in the middle of the room, the few that got past the rails raced right for it. One by one Malone picked them off.
Then it was quiet.
"Anymore?" Marguerite whispered.
"Doesn't look like it."
Lady Carolyn tiptoed in from the sleeping quarters. "Is it over?"
Roxton collapsed into a chair. "For now. Ned inventory our remaining ammo. If they come..."
"Shouldn't we make a break for the plane?" Lady Reese looked from face to face. "If these creatures are off licking their wounds, we'd have a chance to get to the plane."
"Are you crazy?" Veronica peered over the railing. Nothing moved. "There could be hundreds more out there."
"Or there could be none." Clayton noted flatly. "You spotted only sixty or so tracks. Take a look out there. There must be thirty dead ones. There are nine, ten here."
Roxton laid his rifle on the table and accepted the glass of cool water Marguerite offered him. "There's no hurry. We've enough food and water stored. We can give it a few days. Maybe do some scouting tomorrow."
Carolyn dropped to her knees beside Roxton. "John, we've Penicillin for Phillip at the base camp. Not to mention the broken part for the other plane is probably there too. But there's another reason. The real reason why we came looking for you. Your mother is very ill." Taking his hand, she looked deep into his face. "Johnnie, she's dying. She begged us to come find you. Her last wish is to make amends with you. We've been gone ten weeks already."
"Dying?" Roxton shook his head in disbelief. "Dying? We haven't really spoken in over twelve years. She told me..."
Trying to console him, Carolyn touched his cheek. "I know what she said to you that day. She told me. It's been tearing her apart not to be able to speak with you now that she-she's dying."
Roxton refused to believe it. "What's wrong with her? She's never been sick a day in her life."
Carolyn smiled. "I love you and William like my brothers. But do you really think I'd come looking for you in this God-forsaken place on a lark? Johnnie, please."
"I can't decide this now. There are other people to consider." He caught Marguerite's face where she stood in the kitchen. There was no emotion showing. "I'll be at least another six weeks getting back to England. It would be too late."
"Not if you fly. And after what you two stubborn fools put each other through, it's worth the effort. Peace of mind, Johnnie, for both of you. It's her last wish."
Clayton continued to push. "If we leave now, you and I can pick up the Penicillin and the part for the other plane. Once we drop those off here, Carolyn can fly you down. You follow our route and you'll be at the coast in three days maybe less. Challenger and I can get the other plane going. From then on it's a piece of cake."
Challenger laid a hand on Roxton's shoulder. He considered what he'd risk if it was Jessie. "John, we could use the balloon as a distraction for any pterodactyls. I could trail a mirror from it. The light reflecting off it could divert their attention long enough to get the plane into the clouds."
The man forced a smile. "It could work. Marguerite? What do you say?"
"You know me. I've wanted off this plateau since we first set foot on it."
"Dawn is when we should try." Challenger pointed to the sky. "My data has shown the wind currents tend to be at their lowest speeds then."
"That's when we ascended," Clayton reinforced.
Roxton glanced around the room. "By God, I think we have a plan."
"Roxton." She slipped past him continuing on to Reese's sick room. "It's not like you won't be right back."
"But if something should happen..."
"Nothing will happen, John."
"And if nothing does, I'll be meeting you at the docks of London before we know it."
"So get to it." She shooed him off like a little boy. "The others are waiting."
"Marguerite. I love you. Whatever happens in the next day or months or years will change that."
"Good-bye, Roxton. See you this afternoon; I believe five o'clock is the appointed hour." She slid the curtains closed.
Seating herself by Reese she listened to the elevator going down. A moment later it returned. It would be empty.
"Do you believe what he said to you?"
Marguerite jumped. "Lord Reese. You're awake. Let's get some water down you."
"My wife went with them?"
"Yes." She propped his head up. He drank the water greedily. "Roxton and Clayton are going to fly to your base camp. They'll pick up Penicillin and spare parts, then return. He and your wife will fly down next and start the trip along the river. This way Roxton can get a head start back to England and, hopefully, get home before his mother dies."
"His mother dies. Is that what she used?"
Marguerite leaned closer. The stench of infection hovered over him. "What did you say?" His eyes fluttered closed. Marguerite lifted his head and forced more water down him. "What did you say?"
"Do you believe what my old school chum said to you?"
"I know he'll come back. It's who John Roxton is. A knight in shining armor who..."
"Do you believe he loves you?"
"What business is that of yours?"
Reese grew pale as he forced each word out. "Carolyn used to show up at university, throwing herself at which ever brother showed any interest. I loved her the moment I set eyes on her. But she'd have none of me. Those brothers were rich. A lot more wealth than I could offer her. She cried for weeks when William died. I don't know if it was because now William was outside her reach or because John went so far over the edge no one could reach him either. When his father died, I thought we'd loose him too. That was when I first found out: Carolyn was next in line to inherit. We came to South America looking for proof of his death. We never thought we'd find him alive."
She wiped his face with a cool cloth. "You know your wife has taken up with Clayton."
"Yes. I suppose it was those long nights between flights while I went on ahead to clear the next landing strip. We had decided just to take John's family ring and leave you all here. But when Carolyn saw him with you, something snapped. She decided he had to die."
Marguerite straightened, her eyes darting anxiously about the room. "Die?"
"So there could be no heir."
"They're going to kill him?"
His voice grew strained. Marguerite leaned closer to here him. "Will you promise me, Miss Krux, that you'll always love him? That you'll never be like Carolyn."
"I promise, Lord Reese."
"I wronged you, Miss Krux. I apologize."
"Your apology is accepted, Lord Reese."
A long breath escaped him.
She checked his pulse. "Go with God, Lord Reese." Pulling the blanket over his face, Marguerite tucked it tightly under the body. Sitting back in the chair, she glanced around the room.
"Okay, Marguerite, think this through. They have a good thirty minute head start on you." She took to her feet. "Clayton and Lady Reese need the others to work the balloon. They'll just kill Roxton." Running to her room, Marguerite dug through her two baskets of clothing. "And we can't have that."
Challenger reviewed his plans and calculations over and over, both in his head and aloud, as they walked to the windmill. "All right, everyone, we've a lot to do. Time is of the essence."
"I think we've already heard this once, Professor." Malone and Veronica carted the mirror toward the balloon.
"You're right, Professor. We've got to make this quick." Clayton and Roxton trotted toward the functioning plane.
Lady Reese took a stand with a rifle near the jungle edge.
"Well, very good. I'm glad I made myself clear." With a shrug, he joined Ned and Veronica at the balloon. The three of them worked the leads loose and removed the netting holding it down. Finally they lashed the mirror to the remnants of the basket.
Gripping the tail section, Roxton and Clayton turned the plane toward the long end of the runway. From beneath the passenger's seat, the pilot produced a large canister holding gasoline. "I don't think we used a full tank to get up here even fighting those winds."
"I'm curious to see. Let's get her filled up."
They always kept the balloon partially inflated. Twenty more minutes and it was lifting the mirror into the sky.
As he replaced the gas cap, Roxton didn't notice Clayton drawing his pistol and backing away. As if on cue, Lady Reese moved toward the balloon and those working there.
"Well done, Professor." Lady Reese directed her rifle from the jungle toward them. "Now all you have to do is keep that balloon in the air. Nothing else." Challenger sputtered an obvious question which Carolyn ignored. "Miss Layton, if you would be so kind as to remove your knife and toss if over there. Now you may toss it at me and hit me, but Mister Malone will have made his last journal entry."
With two fingers, Veronica delicately slid the knife from its pouch and tossed it away.
"Your rifles are too far away, gentlemen. And any wrong move will cost John his life."
Roxton caught the bizarre scene at the balloon from the corner of his eye. Setting the container down, he straightened. "What's going on?"
"Your friends are fine, Lord Roxton. Nothing's going to happen to them."
Roxton raised his hands. Clayton's pistol was aimed at him. "Carolyn," he called. "What's going on here?"
"Oh, really, John, you can't be that dense. Clayton and I are leaving. You and your friends are not."
"Fair enough. But why the guns?"
Slowly she backed toward the plane. "You three stay at the balloon. If you try anything, I can guarantee John will be killed."
"Ain't families grand." Malone snarled, winding one of the lead lines around his arm.
"Guns are useful for killing, John. That's why we have them: to kill you. And if you make it easy, we won't kill your friends."
Clayton motioned him away from the plane.
"I'm guessing you want to inherit the estate. And for that you need proof. Are you going to take my body back? Maybe my shrunken head?" Roxton inched his way toward the jungle.
"No, your ring will suffice."
He glanced at the gold on his finger. "My ring. Ah. How about if I just give you the blasted thing?"
"No. You took from me my one chance at happiness. I saw you with Miss Krux. You have no right to such joy."
"William? You actually thought you would marry William? Mother would never have allowed it. Lady Elizabeth Gray was being groomed for him. The engagement would have been announced upon our return."
"And instead we buried him because of you."
"That's right. Because of me. You want to kill me. I can't stop you, but there's no need to kill them."
"Cut the melodrama, both of you. Carolyn, we've got to take off."
"Drop your weapon, Clayton!" Marguerite stepped out of the bushes, her rifle pointed at the pilot.
"Marguerite, run!" Malone yelled.
"Don't, Miss Krux." Carolyn walked closer to Roxton.
"Drop it," she ordered. "I mean it."
Lady Reese took aim at Roxton's head. "So do I, Miss Krux."
Roxton shook his head. Marguerite knew she could drop Lady Reese, but not before Clayton or she shot Roxton. She had hoped to arrive when only one of them had a gun.
Clayton turned his pistol toward the three at the balloon. "Drop it, Miss Krux."
"Great." She heaved the weapon onto the ground.
"Go join your friends." Carolyn pointed the way with her gun.
Roxton motioned for her to move.
"Your husband's dead, Lady Reese," Marguerite declared, a note of genuine sadness in her voice. She dawdled trying to stay as close to Roxton as possible.
"Good, the marriage was running out of steam. Besides, I'm the one that inherits."
Roxton's eyes darted about looking for any opportunity. If he ran, they might shoot Veronica or Ned or Challenger. Or Marguerite. "There's still the matter of my mother."
"Oh, your mother is in perfect health... for now. But I'm sure that upon receiving the news of your death, she will grieve herself into the grave."
Roxton took a threatening step toward her.
"Finish him," Carolyn demanded.
Clayton aimed his pistol. "I'll make this clean, Lord Roxton."
"No!" Marguerite ran back to him. Roxton tried to push her away, but she angled too far in front of him. The force of the bullet sent her stumbling back. He caught her. Her name was on his lips but no sound came out. For a moment there was blackness. But slowly a pool of red bubbled into the darkness. He gazed down. Blood oozed on her chest.
Her grey eyes half closed, she whispered, "I would give my last breath for you, Lord Roxton." Her body went limp.
He dropped to his knees Still holding her, Roxton saw no breathing. She was as still as the... Clayton and Lady Reese walked up to him. He didn't see them.
"For heaven's sake, Clayton, get this over with."
He didn't hear the cock of the trigger.
A scream of anger erupted from their left. A knife blade lodged in Clayton's arm. The muscle spasm sent the bullet just beside Roxton's head.
Veronica ran seconds behind the knife. She hurled her whole body into him.
Ned snatched up a rifle and charged Lady Reese. She took aim. The American reporter slid like a baseball player into her feet. The woman tumbled to the ground, her gun flung from her hand. A hard kick to his head left Malone stunned. Carolyn considered the gun. Challenger was almost upon it. Lady Reese bolted for the plane.
Veronica yanked her knife from his arm as she and Clayton rolled in opposite directions. "Don't do it!" she hissed. Clayton reached for the other pistol in its holster. Veronica shoved the knife into his heart.
Malone stared at Marguerite and Roxton. Behind him the plane engine roared to life. He could see the blood stain growing on her chest. Then he looked at Roxton. He had lost both of them.
"No! No way!" Malone raced toward the balloon, snatching up his rifle. Hesitating, he caught Challenger's eyes. The scientist nodded.
Ned fired two bullets into the balloon. The air around the holes sparked, then the balloon did a serpentine drop to the ground.
"Malone!" Veronica yanked the rifle from his hands. He looked into her eyes and clutched her to him. She felt his tears on her checks. "We need to get back to the others."
Roxton saw nothing of what happened. He didn't hear the screech of the pterodactyl as it flew overhead. The others watched in awe as the creature struck the wings over and over with its claws. Finally the plane spun out of control north of them. Someone might have survived.
None of them cared.
"Ned, gather the weapons. We can't stay here. The plane taking off might have attracted those feathered dinosaurs."
Challenger glanced at her then turned away.
Veronica looked at Roxton and Marguerite. Fighting back the tears, she knelt in front of them. "Roxton, we've got to get back to the tree house."
He wanted to speak her name. Call her back. Beg the Powers That Be to rewind time. Let him change those two seconds. Let him reach her to stop her. Let him take the bullet. Please, he begged, William, not again.
Veronica returned Marguerite's hand to her lap. "We have to go, Roxton." Her limp arm slid down again. He caught it and brought it to his cheek.
Her fingers twitched in his hand. Roxton turned an ear closer to her. She moaned. Reality stormed back. "She's alive."
Challenger rushed to her side. "Let me see." Unbuttoning her shirt, his hands dropped away. "What on earth?"
Veronica chuckled in disbelief. "It's the Amazon armor."
Roxton pulled her shirt down. Beneath the Amazon armor was a corset. "She's made a Goddamn bulletproof vest."
Her moaning grew more severe. "I can't breath."
"The bullet's definitely broken the skin. Probably some swelling. We need to get those things off her." Lowering his eyes, Challenger looked to Veronica.
"Oh, for goodness sake."
Malone handed Challenger a rifle. They turned toward the jungle.
Roxton made no sign of moving. Gently he leaned her forward. Veronica unfastened the armor, then unlaced the corset. Marguerite still wore her camisole. Shaking her head in amazement, Veronica pulled her shirt back over her shoulders. Challenger picked up the corset and examined it. A crushed bullet protruded through the whale boning. "I'll be damned," he blurted out, laughing. Displaying the Victorian armor to the others, his laughter intensified. "I'll be damned."
Giggling, Veronica opened the camisole slightly. "Let's see, Marguerite." She set back, also laughing. "It's just a flesh wound."
"A flesh wound," Malone guffawed.
"A flesh wound. After all that!" Challenger could hardly keep his balance from laughing so hard.
"What's so funny?" Marguerite wheezed.
"Don't say a word, Marguerite." Roxton's lips barely moved in his anger.
"Don't say a word. I mean it." Lifting her in his arms, he started toward the tree house. "I'm either going to ball like a baby or shoot you myself. Just stay quiet."
The plane lodged in a huge clump of trees. Lady Reese hurt everywhere but could still move. Reaching under the seat, she found the emergency kit. There was a flare in it. No matter what had happened, John would still come to her rescue when he saw it. She struggled out of the broken plane onto a branch. It would be easy to blame everything on Clayton. One branch at a time, Carolyn climbed down. Men viewed women as so foolish. It would be easy to convince him that Clayton had talked... no...coerced her into it. And with Miss Krux out of the way, she could step in. The drop to the ground wasn't too far. Slipping on the dripping oil and gasoline from the engine caused more injury to her posterior. Removing the compass from the emergency kit, she got her bearings. She had flown north. If she walked south for an hour or so, things would have time to calm down with John. By then, they might even be looking for her. She could set off the flare.
The bushes around her quivered. Something followed her. Brandishing the pistol from the kit, Lady Reese slowed her pace. She looked to the right, then left. One of the small feathered dinosaurs stood in front of her a few feet. A single shot and it was down.
Carolyn stepped over it in a run. John and his friends should have heard the shot. Another one appeared on her right. Another shot brought it down.
John would be on his way.
Something grabbed her jacket. Carolyn slugged her way out of it, still running. Her shirt tore from the weight of one of the creatures latching onto it. Pain seared up her leg as something bit into her boot. Trying to drag the creature off of her she lost the gun. Two more grabbed her arms.
If Lord John Roxton had been on his way, he would have been too late.
After a quarter of a mile, Roxton relented and allowed Marguerite to walk. Each step was slow. Each breath painful. The four of them surrounded her so that not even a branch snapped back on her.
"That could have been gunfire," Veronica suggested over her shoulder to Roxton.
He stared ahead, only taking his eyes from the path to check on Marguerite's progress.
Malone gave Roxton time to reply, then answered. "Probably thunder, Veronica. It looks like rain. Besides if someone had survived they'd have fired off a flare."
Marguerite woke to hear Challenger's discussion of her injury. "From the bruising, I'd say two of her ribs are either cracked or broken. The bullet did penetrate her skin and left a nasty hole. Either way it's bed rest."
"I can deal with that." For whatever reason, it hurt to smile.
"All right, everybody out." Challenger gestured toward the doorway. "She needs to sleep."
Marguerite watched with disappointment as Roxton left with the others. She inhaled sharply as Challenger lifted her head to drink.
"All of it," he ordered.
He waited as the patient relaxed. "This is some of Arthur's medicinal tea. You're going to sleep."
It felt like twenty minutes. "You've slept for thirty hours." Veronica replied in answer to her question. "Challenger was fretting he'd given you too much tea." She laid the back of her hand against Marguerite's forehead. "Feels like the fever's gone. Does it hurt?"
"As a matter-of-fact: yes. The bandage is too tight."
"Has to be. Think of it as a corset," Veronica smiled.
"I went through your things," Marguerite pointed out sheepishly.
"You're forgiven. And when you're feeling better you have to tell me what inspired you to come up with that."
Malone peered around the curtain, breaking into a wide smile of relief.
"But right now," Veronica continued, "You need to speak to Roxton."
Marguerite forgot her own discomfort. "What's wrong?"
"He hasn't spoken ten words. He's either sat in here with you or stood guard on the balcony. I think your selfless act has stunned him into silence."
Self-consciously, Malone stepped into the room. "I think it goes deeper, Marguerite. You, well at first it seemed to him, to all of us that you died to save his life."
Marguerite took a deep painful breath. "Would you tell him I'm asking for him?"
He came in a few minutes later. Unshaven, dark circles under his eyes, his past thirty hours had been more painful than hers.
"Hello." Her smile felt as forced as it looked.
He stared at her as if he didn't recognize her.
"Um. Any sign of those feathered creatures? I can't believe Challenger hasn't named them yet."
Roxton offered no opinion.
"What happened to Lady Reese and Clayton?"
"Veronica can explain it to you." He turned to go. He couldn't tell her that he wasn't even sure what had happened.
"John!" She held her hand out for him. "I'm sorry if she died. It wasn't your fault."
"I don't give a damn about..." He faced her. "Why? Why did you do that?"
His fury startled her. "Before he died, Reese told me she intended to kill you. I had to stop her."
"And this?" He held up the Amazon armor from the back of a chair.
"I knew you'd try and talk her out of killing you. If your powers of persuasion didn't work, that was my Plan B."
"You knew I'd try and talk her out of it. You knew. You don't know me. You don't know me at all."
"If you did know me, you'd never have put me through what you just did. If it's my time to die, then it's my time. You don't block that bullet with your own body." His voice broke. He turned away.
"You think you're the only noble one in this bunch," she countered. "Oh, please. Any one of them would have jumped in front of that bullet to save you. And you would have done the same for us."
"And it's my job. I protect. I take point. I take the risks."
"Because I'm not noble, Marguerite. If I'm anything, I'm a coward. You can't understand. You -you're a survivor. You become different people and leave the baggage of your past behind. I'm the same man who relives his sins and terrors every night. I haven't left anything behind. Don't you see, if the apemen, a spear, even a T-Rex caused your death, I could go on. I'd go on just to relive seeing your eyes, your smile. Feeling your kiss. But dying for me. Marguerite, from there I couldn't go on. I'd have no reason. All I'd see is you in front of me, the bullet propelling you back, back into my arms." He held out his empty hands. "Where, dear God, you died. For William and Father, I had an estate to run. A name to perpetuate. I did that for them. But you. Why else do you think I follow you around, do anything for you? I do it for me. You are for me..." His voice trailed off.
With all her energy she lifted herself out of bed.
"Lie back down, Marguerite."
Her steps to him were slow and stiff.
"You lie back down."
The touch of her hand broke him. Suddenly she was in his arms. He felt her hair against his cheek. Her quick breaths in his ear. His vision of her dead in his arms vanished with the love she shared with him now.
"Back in bed." He lifted her into his arms. In two steps she was on the straw mattress again.
"Lie next to me."
"No, you need to sleep."
"Lie next to me."
He raised her slightly and shifted her to the far side of the cot. Lying on his side next to her, he gave into a smile. "You know, if we ever do this on a regular basis, we'll have to build a bigger bed."
"Lord Roxton, are you making improper suggestions to a helpless young lady?"
"No, just you."
He expression grew solemn. "Promise me you'll never do something like that again."
"I will not. Unless you do the same."
"I guess this is a hopeless argument."
"I guess so."
He leaned forward and kissed her, his hand caressing her arm.
A pained moan escaped her.
"This won't work. I'm..."
She grabbed his shirt collar. "You've made me moan before, Roxton. You can do it again."
As always, Lord John Roxton did as she asked.