The Story Stone
The verdant green jungle canopy allowed only an occasional, brief glimpse of the late afternoon sky; while far below, lush, dark undergrowth hampered the progress of the two explorers who pressed diligently forward. A heavy swarm of flies did nothing to improve Marguerite Krux's disposition. She swatted at them continually and ineffectually while following Lord John Roxton as he hacked with his machete at the vines and leaves hiding the over-grown trail. "I don't know how I let you and Malone talk me into hiking half-way across the plateau just to decipher what may or may not be written on some bloody, old rock," she grumbled. The enigmatic adventuress dragged a heavy lock of her curly, dark hair off her face as she avoided a low hanging branch.
"If Malone's right," the tall, broad shouldered hunter replied patiently, "it is much more than an 'old rock'." He ducked a branch, then held another aside to allow his beautiful companion to pass.
"If he's right. And if he's wrong, it's just a long, miserable hike." She smashed a fly unlucky enough to have landed on her neck. "This better be worth it," she wrinkled her nose in disgust at the mess on her palm, rubbed it clean, then couldn't hold back a smile as she passed by Roxton.
Until recently, Marguerite had grabbed at any chance no matter how farfetched to escape the South American Plateau and return to London; but time and dead ends had nearly destroyed her earlier zeal.
Deepening shadows were quickly bringing an end to the third day of their journey.
The two explorers were following a map drawn by Ned Malone. The reporter had recently returned from a long, self imposed exile during which he had stumbled across a large, heavily inscribed stone. He recognized a few of the symbols, so he'd copied down a portion of it to share with Marguerite in hopes that she could read the entire text. For, from the symbols he understood, assuming he had translated them correctly, Malone was sure that this stone was a key to an escape route from the plateau. When Marguerite read through the little passage he'd copied, she saw in it the possibility of finally returning to civilization, so it took very little convincing from her favourite hunter before the two of them were on their increasingly difficult trek to find the ancient stone.
"Has the trip really been that bad?" Roxton asked. "I thought it rather nice spending time alone together."
She turned back to him with a sarcastic comment on the tip of her tongue which she never voiced. His engaging smile and the suggestive raising of his eyebrows changed her remark to, "Well, there is that."
Her burgeoning smile turned into a wry frown. "A lot of good that does us," she complained, "You've been pushing so hard that by the time we make camp, we are too tired to even eat. She began to mutter under her breath, "we might as well have Malone bursting in on us, at least at the tree house I could be sleeping in my own bed rather than on the ground." Marguerite continued her quiet complaint to Roxton's back as he again took the lead and they continued their hike. "Or reading a book and sipping coffee, or even lulled to sleep listening to one of Challenger's endless lectures."
Roxton rubbed his weary arm as he put his machete back into use. His fingers were numb and each blow reverberated down his back and into his legs. Her incessant grumbling was wearing him down and he was close to snapping at her. Rather than admit to physical and mental exhaustion, he said over his shoulder, "we're nearly there, I don't think an early night will be too great a delay. We can camp at the next clearing." He turned to her with a crooked smile, "If that meets your approval." His smile broadened, losing it's sarcastic edge as she drew nearer.
She stopped inches from him; the tips of her heavy boots almost touching his. She raised up onto her toes, her lips close to his cheek. To his chagrin, rather than brush his cheek with those soft, pink lips, she whispered in his ear, "then we'd best keep moving."
"Right," he replied brusquely to hide his disappointment and turned back to the trail.
. Before he could resume hacking out a trail, Marguerite took hold of his uplifted arm.
She smiled and gave his stubbled cheek a quick kiss, her eyes sparkling with promise.
He returned her smile and nodded at her. "Keep moving it is," He had been pushing hard he admitted to himself, probably too hard, and his motives were entirely selfish. He didn't believe that this stone they headed for could help them get off the plateau, and truth be told, he didn't care if it did or not. Everything he wanted was right here. However, this trek offered the chance to be alone with Marguerite and they did need time alone. It seemed that every time they tried to get away to talk, work things out and just enjoy being together, something always interrupted.
For this trip Malone, being proud and a bit proprietary about his discovery, had wanted to accompany them. Roxton was glad that Ned had returned to their little family, he really was, but he'd had so little time alone with Marguerite since she'd admitted her true feelings and he was worried that she would pull away again. So, yes, he had been pushing; hastening their walk to dissuade the enthusiastic Mr. Malone from following and in so doing, he was sabotaging the trip all on his own.
Roxton pricked up his ears. Someone or something was following them and it definitely was not Malone. He continued walking, not changing his pace. The handsome hunter turned his head surreptitiously to his companion and put his finger to his lips. He inclined his head to disclose the direction of the intruders. As they walked, Roxton ran a expert eye over the area looking for a defendable position to make their stand if it became necessary. There was nothing. He exchanged his machete for his rifle. Following his lead, the lovely brunette was already removing her pistol from its holster. "What is it?" she asked, keeping her voice low, "raptors?"
"More likely a hunting party," he responded quietly. "If we're lucky, they'll pass us by."
She still didn't detect anything but, trusting her hunter completely, she kept a chary eye on the surrounding brush. The muted snap of a twig confirmed Roxton's conviction
That they were being followed. "John…?" the heiress started.
"Not so lucky this time," He muttered then yelled, "Marguerite, Run!"
She did not spare time for a look back, but started to sprint immediately. A dart whizzed past her ear so close that it moved the unruly strands of her dark hair. She had no doubt that the dart was poisoned. Roxton waited for her to pass and fell in directly behind her. Something heavy slammed against his back and dragged him to the ground. As he hit, his rifle was jolted from his hands and skidded away.
Realizing that her hunter was no longer following, Marguerite turned. A cannibal, completely covered in white mud, was sprawled atop Roxton. The savage had a fistful of Roxton's dark brown hair, forcing his head back., a long sharp blade was swinging toward his exposed neck. Without hesitation, she levelled her gun and shot the attacker. As he slumped off his former captive, Marguerite shot three more times for good measure and in so doing dropped two more cannibals; the others did not seem dissuaded from their hunt. They approached as the hunter jumped up seizing his rifle as he did, grabbed Marguerite, and ducked behind a tree.
"What now?" She queried. She handed him his broad brimmed hat which she'd retrieved.
He didn't answer. He leaned back against the tree, drew his twin pistols and, taking a deep breath, turned to face the advancing cannibals. His pistols spoke, and more of the mud covered men fell dead.
Roxton ducked back beside Marguerite who looked up at him with questioning eyes.
"We run," he said. All weariness forgotten, they plunged forward.