CHAPTER 10

Being long since accustomed to fending for themselves, the group made good time, stopping only to search for food, water, and safe places to sleep. They traded off on keeping watch, with Smith naturally begging off the assignment with patently bogus excuses. Figuring longer shifts were tolerable it in order to avoid a long string of tall tales, they let everyone else sleep undisturbed. Each day they put more and more space between them and their captors. And each step put them closer and closer to 'home'.

They nearly shouted for joy when they set eyes upon the first village with it's small wharf. Immediately, they faded quietly into the forest. Nor did they stop until they came to what appeared to be a familiar path. John recognized some of the bizarrely shaped trees he'd intentionally noted on their initial march.

"Getting closer," he said to encourage the others.

"Thank God!" Maureen replied with a dazzling smile. "I think that I am going to enjoy being cooped up in there for a while."

John laughed. "For once, I think the Don and the children would agree with you. Even Smith might be content for a few hours."

Joining him in laughter, she nodded her agreement, threw an arm around his waist and hugged him lovingly.

The trail wound back up the hillside, and signs of previous passage were everywhere. When they came to one of the old campsites, Will and Penny waltzed around the clearing. When they made it back to the small meadow where the group had first been taken, they gave an enthusiastic though muffled cheer. Optimism soared. Liberally laced with other joyous expressions, 'Almost home', became one of the most chanted phrases.

John took a moment to scout out the site for no reason other than curiosity. Then, as he passed the blacked pit of the bonfire, he froze. A thin wisp of smoke broke through the blackened coals. Fearing the worst, he placed the palm of his broad hand over the pit, and felt it. Heat. Not just the kind of warmth that came from a long smoldering, deeply buried collection of embers, but definite heat.

"Uh, Don?"

West froze at the tone in his leader's voice. "Yeah?"

"I suggest we move out of here quickly. This fire is recent."

"Oh boy," Don muttered, but didn't waste any time heading on the path that would take them to their ship.

The speed of the group increased as fear fueled them along. John realized he shouldn't have thrown caution to the wind in their haste to escape when he heard Smith, lagging in the rear, let out a surprised shout. When he turned, he saw the familiar furry countenance of an alien trying to put a choke hold on the doctor.

As Don and John raced to his aid, Smith struggled to break free and finally managed to whack his heel into the long shin of his captor. The creature howled at the pain, and released the doctor. As Smith landed on his knees, Don hurdled him and plowed shoulder first, into the alien's chest, knocking them both to the ground. John joined the fracas, punching the muzzled face until alien eyes rolled back, and the body slumped into unconsciousness.

Not waiting a second longer, they each grabbed Smith under the armpits, and dragged him, unprotesting for a change, down the path.

"Hurry, Dad!" Judy called. "I hear something behind us!"

Without breaking stride he glanced over his shoulder. At first he didn't see anything, then much further back, he saw the bobbing of colored beads. Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks. Pivoting like a professional quarterback, he waited until all but Don had passed him.

"I'm going back there to see if I can stop him. You get the others safely to the ship."

Don hesitated not more than ten feet away. "You'll need help. There's no telling how many others are out there."

"I only see one at the moment. I'll take care of him, don't worry. Right now, the only thing I care about is getting my family to safety. Just promise that you'll see to it, okay?"

Glancing up once to see the bobbing dyed crest of the alien growing too close for comfort, he nodded in answer, and silently turned to join the others.

It didn't take much to get them all into a sprint through the woods. The path they'd cleared with the machetes was open and obvious, though they had to be careful not to trip over the hacked off branches still littering the path. All of them kept up a considerable pace, even Smith, who was fueled purely by adrenaline. But eventually, the doctor's fuel source petered out and he began to lag behind again.

"Maureen, I don't think you will have trouble following this. I'm going back there to help Smith along."

"Don't worry, Don. I'll be just fine." She allowed a small smile to tug at the corner of her full lips by way of encouragement.

True to his word, the Major stopped by Smith, threw an arm around his shoulder and half dragged the panting man after the rest of the group. This slowed him down but he had promised John that he would get them all back safely and if this was what he had to do to accomplish the vow, then so be it.

At another of the small glades, Maureen and her children waited for the two men to join them. All were exhausted and desperately in need of rest. Smith stood against a tree, gulping in huge lungfuls of air interspersed with fits of coughing and wheezing. Nevertheless, when the brush crackled behind them, they grew as silent and stealthy as lions, blending into the forest perimeter as much as they were able.

Suddenly, Maureen broke the silence, causing the forest denizens to cease their chattering. "John!" she called joyfully, and ran to her husband, pressing her face into his broad chest. "I'm so glad you weren't hurt!"

She heard him chuckle softly. "You know you shouldn't worry about me. That poor creature wasn't as crafty as he thought. I took him down before he knew what hit him. And when he wakes, the only thing he will have to remember us by is a very bad headache."

Turning to the rest of the group he said, "I have no idea if there are any others around here, so I suggest we just keep pushing on. It shouldn't be long now."

True to his word, they found the Jupiter 2 waiting, undisturbed, with the Robot standing at the top of the ramp.

"My sensors are very pleased to see you all again." The Robot intoned, not without feeling. "I was very worried about you when you didn't return."

Will raced to his friend and hugged the rotund metallic silver torso. "It's a long story, Robot, and I'll tell you about it as soon as we are all safely in this ship. I promise."

The robot wound one arm around the boys shoulders and gave him a paternal hug. "I will enjoy hearing all about it, Will Robinson."

Once all were in the Jupiter 2 clearing, Robinson began spouting orders in order to get themselves organized enough for a quick liftoff. Though he doubted any aliens could gain entry to their vessel, he was worried that external guidance equipment would be damage.

Will and Penny dashed past him. Without a single suggestion from their parents, they were already one step ahead of any forthcoming orders.

To John's utter amazement, their ever-scheming stowaway, bent down and scooped up a relatively hefty piece of equipment and began to lug it up the ramp.

"And what do you think you're doing?" John asked incredulously.

"Packing!" Smith snapped irritably. "What does it look like!

"Since when do you show such an interest in helping out?"

"Since I decided this little picnic spot isn't worth a single moment's additional attention." With a haughty jerk of his broad chin, he disappeared into the darkness of the ship. After a few minutes, he reappeared and headed toward more of their gear.

"Smith working?" Don sputtered in shock. "I don't believe it!"

"Bah!" came the retort from behind an elevated and bouncing silver crate. "Don't be a sluggard, Major. Get the lead out, and give us a hand."

Chuckling, West took one of the crates off the wobbling stack. "What's the matter Smith, having a change of heart about lounging on the dock of a ship, sipping piƱa coladas, and soaking up the rays?"

"Do you know something, Major. The next time my sanity vanishes, and I suggest we all take a pleasure cruise, do me a favor and put me out of my misery before we make planetfall!" With that comment, Smith indelicately dropped the gear by the ramp and headed back for more.

Don turned to Robinson, looked over his shoulder at a hastily packing Smith, and said softly, "If this is going to be the end result, I think we should start planning our next vacation right away!"

With a loud laugh, John slapped West's shoulder, and said with a twinkle in his eye, "Don't worry, I already have something planned."