Disclaimer: I don't own these characters … but I wish I did.
Author's note: If you think you recognize the opening paragraphs, you do. This was a challenge story.
He ran. They were right behind him. His breath ached in his chest; sweat ran in rivers down his face; muscles burned beneath his skin; his leg bled in a slow, warm gush with each step. But he couldn't stop. She was waiting and counting on him. Under those conditions she wouldn't last long. He couldn't let her down.
Ignore the pain. Don't think. Just run. Survive.
And it wasn't just her. There was their baby to think of, their sweet little baby boy. She'd wanted that baby so much, enduring all the discomfort of their long trek without a word of complaint, and that was not his Beloved's usual way. She had a mouth on her, she did, and wasn't afraid to use it -- especially on him. "If you're such a mighty hunter, why am I always mighty hungry?" she'd asked him more than once.
They argued so often strangers thought them enemies. When they'd first met, they had been. Then unaccountably he'd fallen in love with his dark-haired spitfire. It had taken him so long to win her heart and now he might never see her again.
He stopped to listen for pursuit and heard crashing well behind. These monsters couldn't run fast. If he took to the trees, he might befuddle them, but trees were sparse in this part of the Plateau. He'd be trapped up one in no time. So he ran on, his bleeding leg leaving a trail of splatters that would be easy for them to follow. There was nothing he could do about it. But eventually he'd make them pay. Oh yes, these monsters would pay.
Their little baby had been born only two days ago. While he, the anxious father, had stood outside the cave and listened to his dark-haired, strong-willed Beloved scream her heart out. Listening to those horrible sounds, he'd thought his own heart would break, but at least she'd had a friendly digger clan to help. The gods of the Plateau had granted them that small bit of good fortune. And although the clan had been as hungry as they were, meat had been exchanged and the bond renewed. So it was with all the clans on the Plateau. Shared food built ties of friendship.
He wiped at the stinging sweat dripping in his eyes, and ran again, panting hard, his chest still heaving painfully with each gasp. No matter how much it hurt, he had to keep running, to lure them away from her and their precious baby boy.
Her first child. His child. Dark and curly-haired, like his mother, beautiful like her too. Yesterday he'd held the babe in his arms and marveled how much the tiny being resembled his beloved mate.
This morning he'd told his Beloved they had to leave. She'd been hungry, no, she'd been starving, but she hadn't complained, just packed up the baby in a carrying skin.
That departure had been one of the worst decisions he'd ever made, but he'd make it again. The nastiest monsters on the Plateau had been spotted. "They kill everything," the clan leader had said. "We die too much. You best run."
But they hadn't escaped. Instead they'd walked right into a vicious female monster that had slung its bag of stones at Llejiot's Beloved, knocking the babe to the ground. Llejiot had pushed the ugly female back, shouting and growling to scare it away. It had just stood there screaming over and over something that sounded like "roks-ton," undoubtedly the word for "help me" in the monster's tongue.
Once again Llejiot stopped to listen, not because he thought himself safe, but because his heart would burst if he didn't rest. Gasping the humid afternoon air, he leaned against a tree.
= = = = = = = = = = =
Lord John Roxton paused in his headlong dash and sniffed the air for the distinctive dirty-wool stink of ape-man. He stood still. He listened. He tried to be patient and let the danger come to him. But although it was only early afternoon, it had already been a long day for Roxton and he was in a foul mood. The wounded ape-man he chased just didn't want to die.
At least it led Roxton back over the ground he and Marguerite had covered this morning.
Marguerite had been her usual difficult self ever since the sun had first peeked over the eastern hills. Although they were close to home, camping last night on the north slope of a rugged mount the Zanga called "Old Sleeping Woman" about a day's travel as the crow flies from the Treehouse – although here on the Plateau, the crow ought to be a pterodactyl -- early this morning Marguerite had found a new deposit of gold nuggets in a dry stream bed at the bottom of a ravine. Roxton had to admit that the huge lumps, some as big as a woman's fist, were true buttery-soft gold, not pyrite. Moreover, the dirt in the ravine wall abounded with flecks of gold.
"What a find!" Marguerite had exclaimed as she'd dumped the medicinal herbs out of her pack. Holding up a large nugget shaped more-or-less like a coprolite, she'd continued, "Look at this one! It must weigh five pounds!" It had made a soft clunk when she dropped it in the pack.
"Marguerite, that worthless rock isn't going to heal you the next time you're sick."
Since their entrapment in the druid's cave, Marguerite had begun to share secrets with Roxton, always unexpectedly, always when the two of them were alone, just a droplet here and there – a few words about a childhood spent scrounging on Parisian streets, something about a penniless orphanage in Delhi, a hint about a German general that blamed her for his disgrace.
Roxton craved her small revelations like an addict craves his drug. Thanks to them he now better understood Marguerite's love of shiny things and her seeming greed, but his patience with her treasure hunting still tended to run pretty thin. He'd been afraid she'd want to return to the Treehouse immediately and had told her, "We are not going to stop our medicine gathering. Challenger said we're dangerously low on all the essentials." He had then paused for maximum emphasis on what he said next. "Too many of us have been on the sick list lately." And since that list had included, at one time or another over the past few months, both Roxton and Marguerite, he'd known she understood what he meant.
Marguerite had held up to the light another dull lump of gold then dropped it in the bag. Pursing her pretty lips, she'd squinted at the ground and raked her fingers through the loose stones. "Oh, this is medicine! Gold is good for rheumatism, I'm told. Might help George's shoulder." She'd even proposed climbing Old Woman and using the mirror to signal the Treehouse for re-enforcements. Roxton had vetoed that unequivocally. It was long, difficult climb to the top of the craggy peak.
In the end they'd compromised. Roxton had added most of the herbs to the bedrolls he carried and Marguerite had put five of the largest gold nuggets in the bottom of her bag. Her gold must weigh twenty pounds if it weighed an ounce, but she'd refused to reduce the load. They'd re-divided the food and ammunition and he'd calculated their position and marked it on the map, which meant, of course, that Roxton hadn't seen the last of that dry streambed. Marguerite would be dragging him or Challenger or Veronica and Finn back within the week. All the better reason to make sure this ape-man posed no further danger.
Heaving a tired sigh, Roxton resumed his pursuit of the stubborn ape.
= = = = = = = = = = =
The digger clan elders had told Llejiot and Beloved that you could usually smell the monsters coming. Besides their sour natural odor, they whiffed of crushed flowers, old cured skin and strange metallic things. Earlier, if the wind had been blowing in the right direction, they would have smelled the monsters coming and would still be safe.
When Llejiot tried to scare away the vicious female, its male had jumped him from behind. The male had been such a big bastard, half again as big as its female, and a ferocious fighter, with a long sharp claw that sliced through flesh as easily as water.
Against that monster male Llejiot hadn't been able to win a paw-to-paw fight. It had been too big, too fierce. In the end, Llejiot had been forced to either die or run and hope to lure the monsters after, to draw them away from his family. Thankfully they'd chosen to follow him, another blessing of the fickle gods.
Straightening, Llejiot resumed his race to stay alive.
The gods had answered Llejiot's prayer that time, but more often they were pitiless.
In what seemed another lifetime, he and his Beloved had had a happy home high in a tree, out of danger and surrounded by their wise and loving clan. One day he and Beloved had been out hunting together. A vast forest fire had driven them into the river. When the flames were past and they'd gone home to their old familiar tree, there'd been nothing left but charcoal and smoking corpses. His Beloved had cried for hours. He might have cried a bit himself.
After that they'd traveled far and long, looking for a new safe place. Running from dinosaur after dinosaur, they'd lived off what they could find along the way. The danger had been unremitting, and in the midst of it, she'd become big with child. A few days ago they'd lost all their weapons to thieves, just before they'd found the friendly digger clan that had helped with the baby's birthing. At the time that had seemed a blessing, but now it seemed so cruel to give them hope only to steal it back. He and his Beloved had come through so much together and now this …
Damned sadistic bastards! What kind of creature attacked tiny babies?
= = = = = = = = = = =
Marguerite Krux watched her personal knight in shining armor jog away in pursuit of the wounded ape-man, although today the "shining armor" consisted of a ripped sweat- and blood-stained blue shirt, filthy khaki trousers, those horrid half-sprung gold-tone braces, and a pair of size eleven boots that were decidedly down at the heels. For an English lord, Roxton made a passable tramp. Ah well, iron armor was too hot to wear in the rainforest anyway.
Marguerite shook her head. She wished Roxton would have just let the beast go, but he had a particular vendetta against the hairy half-humans. Probably had something to do with his brother William's death, an ever-fresh tragedy in Roxton's mind. It had involved an encounter with a giant African ape.
Not that the pair of apes hadn't given Marguerite a proper scare, but the thin little, dark-furred female now cowering on the ground hadn't tried to attack again, nor had it run away. Rocking the softly crying cub, it whimpered as though it expected to die at Marguerite's hands. It kissed its tiny baby. Dark, neatly combed fur curled on its head. It smelled of campfires.
Marguerite watched it thoughtfully. These beasts didn't seem … bestial.
The little female didn't look like any of the ape-men Marguerite had ever seen. Squatting on her heels, Marguerite reached out and touched the tiny cub's exposed cheek. "What a lovely child. How old is he … er, or she?"
The female's nervous grin curled black lips away from square, white teeth – so unlike the sharp yellow canines that most ape-men seemed to have! The female began to chatter an angry tirade. After a few minutes, to Marguerite's amazement, the little female's venomous chittering began to make sense.
"My Llejiot, he will kill your mate. Llejiot is smart and strong. That's why I chose him. He will kill your ugly mate and come back to save me. I have faith in him. He would never leave me behind."
For a moment, Marguerite was too amazed to reply. Although she could eventually understand almost any human language, the ape-men's noisy barks had never before resolved into decipherable communication.
Tentatively, Marguerite tried a few ape-man words. "Your mate was very brave."
The female's round-eyed, amazed expression told Marguerite that she had gotten through. "Llejiot is a mighty hunter. The mightiest of them all."
"So is my … John." Marguerite frowned. 'Yahn' meant 'safe tree' in ape speech. Well, that was as good a name for Roxton as any.
The tiny ape child had gone silent and its eyes had closed. It didn't look healthy. Marguerite felt a strong pang of guilt. This was her fault. She'd thrown her heavy pack full of gold nuggets at the tiny baby. "Is your baby well? He's so quiet."
"I don't know. Norlomt is only two days old but I cannot feed him. My breasts, they stay empty. We've been away from our tree so long, I cannot make his milk."
Hmm. There was a little powdered milk in the food supplies. Roxton liked it in his tea. Her heavy pack must be around here somewhere. She couldn't have thrown it far. Yes, there it was a few feet off the trail, right next to where Roxton had dropped his. "I have food for … Norlomt. I sorrow for the pain I caused. Let me help."
= = = = = = = = = = =
The ugly monsters were still after Llejiot, he could hear them crashing through the low undergrowth, arrogant and careless like a dinosaur in heat.
Jigging left, he dashed between two boulders as tall as he and ran up a ravine, splashing heedlessly in a shallow rivulet until a twinge reminded him of his leg wound. He paused to wash in the stream before the water soaked into the ground and its flow disappeared. The wound bled freely but didn't look too bad and it didn't hurt, at least not enough to slow him down. The blood scent might attract meat eaters, but he couldn't worry about that now.
If Llejiot could only throw his pursuers off, he could double back and help his Beloved, but he had little hope. At the campfire last night, their new friends had warned him about these monsters, how merciless and greedy they were, and how vicious.
"Killed a hand of males last fight," one fellow had said.
"Big loud noise, fire stink, then dead," another had added and had trembled as he hugged his knees.
"Kill, kill, kill. Kill them or they kill us," insisted a third.
Llejiot's new digger friends weren't the leafiest branches on the tree, and their clan seemed disorganized. The starvation conditions in which they lived would account for that. An empty belly over-ruled the brain.
There had always been a lot of the monsters' breed on the Plateau. On Llejiot's travels he'd often seen them, but usually they were easy to scare away and didn't really fall in the "monster" category. They walked on two legs like the clans did. They smiled, they laughed. At times they even seemed to talk. And they were particularly good slow roasted with vegetables on the side.
The clan leader had told him these particular specimens were new, probably abnormal and especially brutal. Even though there was less than a hand of them, they killed everything that got in their way, far more than anything their size could ever eat. Last night his new friends had compared the monsters to a sickness, a plague that ate away at the heart of the Plateau. That plague had decimated clans and emptied whole caves, if not killing outright, starving out – as the easy hunting had disappeared for several days travel in all directions. Only the most vicious and largest of the dinosaurs remained, the ones even these monsters couldn't kill.
To Llejiot the stories had seemed a bit exaggerated, but now he believed them all.
Llejiot's sharp hearing picked up the crunch of dry sand and rattle of stone. Gods! these monsters were loud! They didn't seem to care whether he heard them or not. His head hanging down, Llejiot listened intensely.
He began to hope. There was only one set of footsteps making its way up the ravine -- the male judging by the heavy steps. He'd assumed both of the things had followed.
Then Llejiot thought again. If he had only one his trail, the other was after his Beloved! He had to get back! Desperation made him tremble and the heavy sweat start again, but he couldn't give into despair. If he could find a place to make a stand, they might still have a chance. It gave him a fresh burst of energy and once again he began to run up the ravine.
Finally Llejiot found what he needed. The ravine had been growing gradually deeper. To his right a steep slope was topped by a layer of soft dirt and large boulders, all of which lay loose and poised to collapse, a perfect trap. By some magic of the Plateau gods, the dirt sparkled in the sun.
The vicious bastard chasing Llejiot was smart enough to read any spoor he left, so Llejiot traveled further down the ravine, beyond a sharp bend, before he scrambled up the scree. He had to drop to all fours several times to make it to the top, but once there, it was an easy matter for him to squeeze behind a large, loosely set boulder. And then all he had to do was wait.
But waiting was the hardest part. Waiting for the monster, Llejiot had time to think about his Beloved and their baby, their sweet little baby Norlomt, and to remember their lost tree home, their lost friends, their lost world.
And then the monster was there -- as ugly as a walking death dinosaur and seeming twice as big. It clutched a long slender club tightly to its chest. Oddly mottled skins almost completely covered it, hiding any fur; and from this angle, the broad leaf skin on its head concealed the brutal face.
Just a short distance more. Just a little further. Come monster, come meet your death.
= = = = = = = = = = =
Roxton moved his rifle to his shoulder and squinted up the narrow valley. Wouldn't you know it? This was the same blasted ravine where Marguerite had scrounged for gold. Marguerite and the ape had conspired to ruin Roxton's day.
Balancing like a cat, albeit a large one, on carefully placed feet, Roxton stepped forward. Something had changed in this chase. He wasn't sure just what. "Where are you, you ugly son?" he whispered to himself. Ahead maybe twenty feet away the ravine took a sharp bend. To his right and left, steep, talus-covered slopes rose to the rainforest. It made an excellent place for an ambush, either from ahead or from above.
Nothing moved. In the narrow, protected ravine, the afternoon lay as stifling hot as a sauna. Here and there the ground glinted in the sun.
The stupid bastard undoubtedly waited for Roxton around the bend ahead. Ape-men were not masters of strategy. It wouldn't be smart enough to climb the slopes and try to bury him with a rockslide.
If Veronica were here, she could give him some insight to ape-man thinking patterns. But he might as well wish for one of Challenger's unholy machines or for ape-men to change their basic nature and agree to negotiate a truce. If anyone could pull off that, it would be his Marguerite, the best negotiator he'd ever seen.
He'd had to leave Marguerite all alone back there. Roxton generally had little faith in Providence, but he said a prayer for her anyway, just in case. Here on the Plateau, one never knew Who might be listening. "Lord God, keep her safe."
Although Roxton had told Marguerite to stay put, she rarely followed orders. One had to wonder how she'd survived as a spy in the war when disobedience got one killed – and generally by one's own comrades. Lies upon lies, that's how she'd done it, impossibly delicate games with the truth. She still played them. For her, being Parsifal must have become a sort of habit.
Parsifal. Marguerite had been the real Parsifal, the most notorious British traitor of the Great War. And even that had been a lie, as Marguerite had actually been a triple-agent – the Germans believed she betrayed her government while she'd remained loyal. A dangerous, deadly game.
Saving the Parsifal triple-agent gambit had ended Roxton's Army career. Although few knew that Roxton had been falsely identified as Parsifal and drummed out the Corps as a traitor -- not even his mother, thank God, as she'd had enough heartbreak in her life – his discovery that he'd saved Marguerite with his sacrifice made it seem more worthwhile.
There'd been a time when Roxton had wanted the discipline of a military life. That had been a long, long time ago, in another lifetime -- in another younger and more innocent world when he and William had planned lives that never happened.
William Roxton had been only a year older than his brother John, but the two brothers like photographic positive and negative, had been opposites in nearly every way. William had been blond instead of John's brunette, reserved instead of blunt, introspective instead of an adventurer, delicate of constitution rather than robust. When William had died at twenty-eight he'd been engaged to marry his childhood sweetheart, a pale, sweet girl that seldom left her country home. John, now aged forty, after a long string of meaninglessly liaisons, had finally found his dark and fiery true love in a jungle half the planet away from home.
The only things the brothers had shared had been their filial affection and a hope for military careers – John in the Army and William in the Navy. "That way," William had always said, "we'll have them coming and going."
That world was all gone now. Vanished like this ape-man.
In front of Roxton the ravine shimmered in the afternoon heat. He'd waited as long as had seemed wise and there was no overt evidence of danger, just his uneasy feeling. Flies buzzed; gold sparkled; birds gossiped in the trees. If Roxton delayed much longer the ape-man might try to double back and attack Marguerite. She knew how to defend herself, but wounded animals did desperate things and Roxton wanted to make sure this ape wouldn't threaten her again. It and its small, dark mate had attacked Marguerite on the trail. They obviously had no fear of humans.
Marguerite had said there'd been a baby ape, but Roxton hadn't seen it. A baby would explain a great deal. Veronica said ape-men pair bonded. The male probably had been protecting his family. Roxton would have done the same.
Bringing his rifle back up to his cheek, Roxton whispered to no one in particular, "Here I come, ready or not." He began to sidle forward, his boots softly rasping in the gold laden sand. Nothing happened. Nothing moved. Roxton slid some more. Still nothing. A little further. Nothing. He kept going. The uneasy feeling continued to build.
When Roxton reached a point directly under the sharpest incline, with a rumbling grind the wall of the ravine collapsed, pouring dirt, boulders, gold and tree roots into the ravine.
Reacting instinctively, Roxton spun on his heel and fired up the slope.
= = = = = = = = = = =
There was something in the ugly female monster's voice, some gentle honesty that came through in the oddly inflected words. So Beloved surrendered her precious Norlomt and watched anxiously as the monster's long, naked paws delicately poked the tiny limbs. The baby gurgled and stirred sleepily.
"Nothing is broken, but we must not let him sleep," the monster told Beloved. "If his head is hurt, he might not wake up again. Here, you hold him – don't let him sleep! -- and I will make the milk."
This female had large round breasts, but it didn't smell of babies. From where would it get the milk?
The monster crawled away on its knees then bent over and, with its back turned, made some strange noises -- rattlings and gurglings. It must be squeezing out some milk. Was its baby hidden away nearby or with its clan? In a moment it returned with a strange cup that smelled of milk and a thin piece of tanned skin. It poured the milk in the skin. The skin immediately began to squirt a tiny stream, and the monster put the squirting end in Norlomt's mouth. The baby sucked hungrily, but soon finished and nosed around for more. The monster smiled and cooed, "That's all for now, little one. I'll make more soon." It gently touched Norlomt's cheek.
Beloved understood. The monster had shared its baby's milk. Her mate must be a mighty hunter indeed for her to have so much, but it was still a wonderful, generous thing to do, as kind as anything she'd seen at the digger clan. And its mate had a clan name … Yahn. That had been the name of Beloved's father's brother, one of the many in her old clan who had died in the forest fire. Underneath their fur, she and the monster weren't so different. Hesitantly Beloved said, "Perhaps both our mates will return."
The monster looked at her, a startled expression in its eyes. "Oh mi goh-awd! rog-on!" it said in a strange, barking tongue, then in proper speech it added, "Come, we follow them." It turned and picked up something from the ground -- its weapon-bag of stones.
As Beloved awkwardly scrambled to her feet, the baby in her paws, an awful rumbling noise sounded in the distance, followed by a loud, sharp pop like nothing else Beloved had ever heard.
The female monster cried out, "Hurry! We must hurry!" It dropped its weapon bag and ran.
= = = = = = = = = = =
A fierce patch of tropical sun demanded that Roxton wake up and pay attention. But his mind, afraid of what it would find, only reluctantly crawled out of its black hole. Come on, John, the sun demanded. Awake or die. Which is it going to be? Roxton moaned and opened his eyes to see the Plateau's bright blue sky.
First discovery, minor damage: Warmth trickled down Roxton's cheek. He put a hand to his face. It came back wet and red. "Oh joy! Dinner bell just rang for the beasties."
Second, solid evidence of survival: Twitching his body, Roxton took inventory. His left chest checked in with a rib that stabbed as sharply as a knife – either broken or cracked, he couldn't tell which. Various other spots reported cuts and bruises.
Third, the horror: Gingerly Roxton tried to sit. "Oh Christ!" He thumped to the dirt half-conscious from the pain. His rib hadn't cared for that at all, but he'd be dead if he didn't get on his feet. He levered his head up, saw the whole situation and with a sob fell back.
There wouldn't be any point in trying to get up again. He couldn't sit up, much less stand up. Only his arms and chest had been visible. His waist, pelvis, hips and legs were underneath an enormous pile of rock. Although he could both feel and move them, he was trapped.
Worse, Roxton lay parallel to the ravine wall, snugged up against the foot of the slope like a baby to its mother. The next fall of rock down the unstable slope would bury Roxton completely.
Gold glinted all around him. The slide had exposed enough of it to plate the Rolls-Royce Roxton had left back in England. The dirt itself seemed to be half gold. It sparkled on his hands and dusted the rocks piled over him. If he hadn't been pre-occupied with staying alive, even Roxton might have been dazzled.
"Keep calm, old boy," Roxton told himself. "Panic never saved the day. Let's see how far you can get." He tried to slide forward, then back, then side-to-side. In every direction he moved only a few inches before his pelvis or ribs smacked into something hard. The shape of Roxton's own body pinned him down.
Given time Marguerite might dig Roxton free, but even his minor shifting had caused the slide to rumble a warning and throw a few more rocks. It seemed eager to finish him off. And if the slide didn't bury him, the ape-man would knock his brains out. It still lived. A falling boulder had spoiled Roxton's hasty shot and as he'd gone down he'd seen the ape's shaggy bottom moving up on the rim.
Between his two routes to eternity -- ape and landslide -- Roxton rather preferred the ape. It had a certain poetic symmetry -- apes killing both of the Roxton brothers. On the other hand, dying under a mountain of gold did have a certain romantic cachet. Either way, Marguerite would find him dead, if she found him at all. At least she'd enjoy the digging.
"Stay where you are, love," Roxton whispered.
But after the gunshot, Marguerite would already be on his trail, grumbling something like, "Roxton, this is the last time. From now on you just find someone else to change your diapers." Marguerite's complaints were her way of saying, "I love you." And for her sake, he had to try to live.
Flopping his arms around, Roxton searched for a weapon, but the best he came up with was a fist-sized gold-flecked stone, and with a damaged rib he couldn't throw that very far. He put it by his chest and tried to find another. Footsteps crunched behind his head. To his left, about five feet away, furry legs leapt into view.
= = = = = = = = = = =
Llejiot danced his victory. He'd defeated the worst terror on the Plateau! "Trapped you!" he hooted. "Brought you down! See you mighty Llejiot of the Green Trees? He is your master, your death!" The digger clan had been after this monster for years, but he Llejiot had done it!
Exhausted from the chase and too little food, Llejiot didn't dance for long. "How shall I kill you, monster? How would you like to die?" he panted as he sat down on a boulder in front of it.
It didn't look so terrifying anymore. Its eyes had become round and its body strained against the rocks that pinned it. Although helpless, the monster still snarled, showing blunt white teeth. You had to admire that kind of fighting spirit. With both hands it tossed a shiny rock that flew wild and thwacked against the slide, triggering a series of shifts among the boulders that ended with a dirt rivulet cascading down the ravine wall and almost burying the monster's head. It had to struggle hard to stay clear.
That had been a really poor pitch. Either the monster couldn't throw worth rotten tree fruit or it'd been badly hurt.
Picking up a heavy yellow stone of his own, Llejiot tossed it into the air, both to test its heft and watch the monster's reaction. It understood him perfectly. Its dark eyes followed the rock up and down. Saying two syllables that sounded like "du-it," it turned its head away. It muttered another string of sounds, "may-el-eet." So sad, so full of longing. Llejiot had a flash of insight – expecting to die, the monster called a farewell to its mate. He would have done the same.
No, Llejiot decided, he wouldn't kill it. No matter how badly he needed food, finding Beloved and Norlomt was more important.
Llejiot tossed the rock away. It thunked against a large boulder and a few more stones tumbled down the slope. Recoiling, the monster looked up, surprise at being alive animating the oddly naked face. Llejiot noticed then what he hadn't seen before – the creature had a little fur after all, a bit of dark growth on its jaws, and more on top of its head. Its eyes were … green, but with flecks of brown rather like stones seen in a deep river.
But why should he, Llejiot, the finest hunter in any clan, care? He had to be on his way. His family needed him.
Llejiot stood up and began to walk away. His foot connected with something long and hard that popped out of the dirt like a tree branch. It was the monster's peculiar club. Llejiot picked it up and tested the balance, which was poor, much too heavy in the long, smoothly round grip and too light in the broad business end. However, it might make a worthy trophy to prove Llejiot's triumph to the digger clan … if they were going back there, which they weren't. Even with this monster dead, easy game would still be scarce on this end of the Plateau. And this heavy, awkward club made a poor souvenir. As he walked back to the mouth of the ravine, Llejiot tossed the club away.
= = = = = = = = = = =
"You can just hush up, John. I'm not leaving you here alone." Roxton flinched away from Marguerite's hands as she placed another stone -- a large gold nugget -- in her little dam. It had slowed the flow of loose dirt coming at his head, but in the long run, her dam would be a mere row of pebbles against a river. Marguerite stopped her dam building to brush dirt and gold dust out of Roxton's hair and off his face. "And furthermore, I'd appreciate it if you'd show a little faith in me. I'll get you out of there."
Marguerite didn't have a clue how to free him, of that Roxton was sure.
At first, when Roxton had heard Marguerite's footsteps approach, he'd thought it was the ape-man and been relieved. A quick death was preferable to smothering, and at the time he'd been damned close to that. "Come back to kill me, have you? Better hurry!" he'd called out and then spit a mouthful of metallic tasting dirt.
"I will if you insist," Marguerite had answered, "but it looks like you're doing a fair job of it already." Then she'd thrown herself down beside him, and her stricken eyes had belied the flippant words. "God, Roxton, what have you done to yourself now?" Frantic hands had rushed to assist his desperate struggle to keep his face clear. And she'd started crying. While she'd worked on her dam, one of her filthy, bleeding hands had kept wiping at the excess tears. She was still crying. Gold glinted in the tear-streaked dust powdering her cheek.
It would have been better if Marguerite hadn't found him, but the ape-man had left a blood-splatter trail a child could follow and Marguerite would have recognized the area. She'd probably even memorized this ravine's location for a future treasure hunt. Now she was here and refused to leave. She'd watch him die.
Roxton's right arm and shoulder were more than half buried by dirt. He couldn't even raise his upper body off the ground anymore. Death seemed very close. Marguerite began to paw at the loose pile but that just caused more to cascade down and she stopped. The gold-sparked soil continued to dribble slowly, building up behind Marguerite's dam and pattering across his chest.
"Marguerite," Roxton said, "look at me." With his weakened left arm, he tried to capture one of her hands. She pulled both of them to her chest, out of his reach. Her eyes refused to meet his.
The immediate threat to Roxton's breathing secured, Marguerite stood up and turned to look more closely at the rocks piled over him. Despite all the shiny gold, Marguerite didn't like what she saw. Shoving a fist in her mouth, she stifled an aching sob. Now she understood what he'd been trying to tell her. Rock, tons of it, precariously balanced, waited for gravity to finish building Roxton's grave.
Again Roxton tried to make her see the truth. "You can't get me free by yourself, darling. Give me your pistol and go for help. Climb to the top of Old Woman and signal the Treehouse."
A huge roughly shaped granite boulder near the top re-settled and crunched against a mass of tree roots. If that one started down …
"No, never. I'm not going to leave you." Marguerite's eyes went to him then back to the slope. "How bad is it, John? What can you feel? Are you … will you … ?" She stopped talking, shook her head and started muttering without looking at him, "No, no, I won't let you. I'm not going to lose another one. No more kiss of death. You will live, Roxton!" Marguerite attacked the monumental pile of stone, frenziedly pitching rocks, roots and gold nuggets indiscriminately, as if she didn't care which was which.
She couldn't keep that up for long. She'd soon collapse from heat exhaustion, if she didn't restart the slide and bury him.
Roxton didn't feel any change in his prison. He was still trapped. He'd be trapped here until the last trumpet on judgment day. This ravine would be Roxton's grave.
The large boulder up near the top shifted a little but stayed put.
Are you crushed? Are you dying? That's what Marguerite had wanted to ask. Will we share more nights of love? Will you ever walk again? Or is what I see all that's left of you? Even if Roxton lied and told her that he'd be dead within the hour, Marguerite wouldn't leave. She'd stay until Roxton's dying breath. Marguerite loved him. She'd told Roxton so and although it had only been the once, it was enough for him. He believed in her love, even when she doubted it herself.
Roxton decided that telling Marguerite the truth about his injuries would serve best, even though it would raise her hopes pointlessly.
"Think I've got a broken rib on my left side, but that's it. Something's holding the slide off my legs. Don't know for how long." It had begun to hurt when Roxton talked – the piled dirt and gold pressed down and the damaged rib stabbed. He nodded toward the constantly creeping slope and the precariously trapped boulder. "I think the slide might come down any second now. Promise me you'll run."
Relief made Marguerite's shoulders sag. She stopped her excavation, and leaned on the rock pile. She looked at Roxton then quickly ducked her head and looked away. He must be an awful sight to see, if Marguerite couldn't stand to look at him. "You're lying, aren't you, Roxton? Lying so I won't worry." She looked up the slope then at the pile of rock over him. "There's so much. How could you be … ?"
"Devil of a rib, but nothing else. I swear." Roxton's frustration with his helplessness was building to volcano force. It put an edge of irritation on his voice. "Marguerite, give me your pistol and go for help!"
Roxton's flash of temper must have convinced her that he told the truth. This time she didn't even acknowledge his demand with a refusal. Three quick steps brought Marguerite back to his side and she knelt. "I thought … the blood on your face … but you're okay." She gently kissed his forehead. "Thank God for small favors … very small favors." She sat back on heels and murmured to herself more than to him. "What can I do? What can I do?" Her hands rubbed gold dust onto her lips.
"Leave me! GO FOR HELP!" Fighting the dirt, Roxton levered himself up the tiny amount he could until the pain on his left side sent him back. He admitted to himself that even if Marguerite gave him the pistol, he might not be able to fire it accurately with his weakened left arm. She knew what would happen if she left him – if the slope didn't bury him, the scavengers would have him as a handy snack. To leave Roxton alone would be a death sentence within a span of an hour or two. They both knew it.
Not too long ago, when they'd been trapped together in a cave, expecting to die, Marguerite had emotionally collapsed and given up the struggle. That wasn't happening now. She wasn't giving up on Roxton. Marguerite ignored his vehement demand for her to leave. "Where's you rifle, John? Is it buried in the slide?"
"Ape-man threw it over there," Roxton indicated with his eyes the other side of the ravine. "Damned bastard left me to smother to death. Marguerite, he might come back. Please go …"
"Shut up, Roxton. I'm in charge here." Marguerite's gold-flecked lips pecked at Roxton's bloody cheek then she arose to her feet.
"Obviously, Your Highness," Roxton grumbled as she disappeared from his range of vision, "but don't get used to it."
Marguerite was back in a moment with Roxton's rifle, breaking it open and checking for bullets as she walked. Standing over him, she faked a smile. Did a damned poor job of it, but she tried. "John, you have to promise that you won't yell at me."
Realizing Marguerite was trying to put humor in the situation (and hoping that it wouldn't prove macabre), Roxton did his best to cooperate. He smiled back and answered in the lightest voice he could muster, "I'll do no such thing, you minx! That's my best hunting rifle you've got there!"
"Okay, suit yourself. But I'm still in charge. I'll do what I think best. And you do what I tell you. Got it?"
"Most assuredly, my queen." Roxton couldn't resist adding, "But don't die with me, Marguerite. Please run if it starts coming down. Please."
Marguerite didn't answer. Awkwardly holding the rifle by its barrel end, she examined the pile of boulders, gold and stones, looking for an advantageous opening.
= = = = = = = = = = =
Roxton has more lives than a whole clowder of cats, Marguerite reminded herself. He can't have used them all. If she could just find an opening for her makeshift crowbar, her plan might work. She'd had no training as a structural engineer, but this slab seemed the key cover stone that both protected and trapped Roxton's legs. If she could get it up an inch or two, Roxton should be able to slide out.
Ah, there. A small, irregular hole, almost centered. It'd do. She carefully slid in the rifle barrel -- sideways so she'd have the stock as a nice paddle to lean on.
"Okay, John, when I say, 'Go,' you shimmy out of there. Are you ready?" She dared to look at him. Roxton's gold-dusted skin and hair gleamed like a pagan idol. Flecks of it stuck to the bloody cut on his forehead. He looked unreal.
Anywhere else on Earth this much gold would pay for a hundred men to dig Roxton out. But here on the Plateau, there was no help to buy and the beautiful, sparkling gold was crushing Roxton's life away.
Roxton braced his left hand against the ground and nodded, he couldn't move very much against the pile of dirt on his chest. She had to free him soon or he'd never escape on his own – and Marguerite couldn't be two places at once. She couldn't both lever up the stone and help Roxton struggle out.
"Ready when you are, Marguerite. Haul away."
Her elbows locked, Marguerite leaned down on the rifle stock. Nothing moved. Okay, she hadn't expected that to work. The slab was almost as big as she was. She threw her whole weight on the rifle stock, balancing on it with her abdomen and lifting her legs off the ground. Her target keystone shifted slightly but re-settled. It hadn't moved anywhere nearly enough to set Roxton free.
Marguerite couldn't let Roxton see her disappointment. He'd been teetering on the brink of despair ever since she'd found him, and if she wavered now, it would push him off the edge. He might go berserk and hurt himself trying to escape. "Hmmph, Archimedes, where are you when I need you?" she quipped and looked sideways at Roxton. Could she get him to smile again?
His face contorted with something other than physical pain, Roxton was lying flat on the ground and panting hard. Marguerite could almost smell the sulfured brimstone of his fury. He looked hot enough to melt the gold dusting on his skin.
Over the last three years Marguerite had learned her bold adventurer could cope with almost anything but helplessness. Roxton needed to feel in control and part of the solution. That's why he kept trying to "save" Marguerite by driving her away, even when it was actually Roxton who needed rescuing.
"I just gotta find a better fulcrum," Marguerite announced out loud. She picked up a wedge-shaped stone. It was granite but gold dust made it sparkle in the late afternoon sun. "What do you think of this one?"
"Whatever you say, Marguerite. Just do it," Roxton snarled then turned his head to look at her. "And run if a slide starts. Promise me you'll run." He was still trying to save her. Sometimes Roxton could be really irritating.
Marguerite positioned her fulcrum rock. "Ready?" she asked then without hesitation leaned. Once again her feet left the ground as she balanced her entire weight over the rifle stock. She grunted. The heavy slab moved half an inch and stopped.
Roxton muttered, "I'm going for it."
No, don't! It's not enough! Marguerite tried to shout, but her hard-pressed diaphragm wouldn't cooperate. All she did was grunt a strangled, "No!" But she stayed where she was. If Roxton had begun to slide out, he would be mashed if she shifted now.
Marguerite tried to think herself heavier and for a few ridiculous seconds she thought it had worked. Underneath her chest, the rifle stock moved down and the key stone over Roxton's legs moved up. Then she saw the real reason for the motion – two muscular, hairy ape-man arms had joined her in leaning on the rifle. The stock went all the way down and she heard the crunch of boot against rock as Roxton quickly slid out of his trap.
Marguerite silently sobbed her relief. She'd been so afraid. Everyone she'd ever truly loved had died or vanished. Telling Roxton "I love you" had been careless of her. Roxton had nearly died this time and he'd never be safe again.
"I'm clear!" Roxton shouted, "but you've got that ape on you! Get back and out of my line of fire! I'll take care of him!"
Still hanging on the rifle stock, Marguerite grunted, "No! Friend!" almost incoherently and followed that with, "You move first," in the ape-man's speech. Would the creature understand? Would it cooperate? They had to back off from this carefully or die in a slide.
The ape understood and, even better, it knew just how to keep from exacerbating the situation.
The rifle stock slowly eased up again. Marguerite shifted off and stood up in front of the ape-man. Taller than Roxton but a great deal thinner, the ape towered over Marguerite. She'd told Roxton it was a friend, but was it? While hanging on the rifle, she'd seen the bloody gash on its leg. This was Roxton's erstwhile prey, the female's mate. What was its name? Llejiot? It looked even more starved than its female.
Llejiot didn't make a move, just stood looking down at Marguerite, a sober expression on its brown face. "We had no food to thank you for your baby's milk," it said, "so my Beloved told me to save your mate. It is done. May your clan of monsters live long and your tree have many branches." It seemed to be reciting a formula or a blessing of some sort.
With that Llejiot made as if to leave, but Roxton chose that moment to yell again, "Get away from the damned ape, Marguerite! I need a clear shot!" Llejiot froze in place.
Marguerite looked over her shoulder. Crusted in gold, filth and blood, Roxton swayed just a few feet away, his pistol in his shaking right hand, his left arm tucked close to his side. Roxton often shot first and thought later, and from the rage on Roxton's face, all he saw right now was an ape-man.
Marguerite turned to face Roxton. "No, John. It saved you."
Roxton scowled and wagged his head. His eyes didn't quite focus. "After it tried to kill me, Marguerite! Apes are murderous bastards! I hate them! I hate them all! Get out of my way!" Roxton staggered forward and tried to push Marguerite aside. "Get out of my way," Roxton gasped again, "Blasted ape killed my brother." But Roxton had over-estimated his remaining strength. He swayed against Marguerite. His pistol dropped to the ground and his arms encircled her shoulders. He stank of sour fear sweat.
"No, John, that was in Kenya, a long time ago. This is South America on Challenger's Plateau. We're in the ravine where I found all the gold. Remember, John?" Marguerite fought to keep Roxton upright, but if he fainted, they'd both go down. And the boulder still hung up above them all, caught in roots that wouldn't hold forever.
Roxton leaned heavily against Marguerite and groaned. "Kenya?" he mumbled. "You're right. Ape didn't kill William. I did. Kenya. My fault. Rice's safari. Father, I'm sorry, please don't die." Roxton made less and less sense. He seemed close to passing out.
"Roxton! Roxton! Stay awake! We have to get out of this ravine."
"Can your mate walk?" Llejiot hadn't left yet. He'd been watching Roxton's collapse. Slipping a shoulder under Roxton's arm, Llejiot took his weight from Marguerite and began walking the nearly unconscious man to safety. After a few steps, a small, hairy shadow detached itself from the mass of boulders and resolved into the female and its baby. Marguerite watched the apes lead Roxton out of the ravine.
All the gold in the world wouldn't have bought the ape-man's help. For a little powdered milk Roxton had been saved.
Never again would gold gleam quite the same for Marguerite. Gold had started this whole mess, when she'd thrown her heavy pack at the apes. And the gold in the ravine had almost buried Roxton forever. He was right. Here on the Plateau, gold nuggets were only useless rocks.
Up on the slope the threatening boulder shifted among the restraining roots. A few gold nuggets rattled down. Scooping up Roxton's pistol, Marguerite quickly yanked his rifle free. She hurried to catch up.
= = = = = = = = = = =
Llejiot made a few practice stabs with the long claw the female monster had given him. It was the very same one he'd fought against earlier in the day and the finest knife he'd ever held -- balanced, sharp and hard. The monster female had shown him how to keep it sharp, and at Llejiot's request she'd blessed it to bring good hunting.
"If you're finished with that, my love, I have a good use for it," Beloved murmured at Llejiot's side. She meant, of course, the mountain of freshly killed dinosaur that lay before them. "The monsters gave us food. Let's not waste it."
"Somehow, my darling Beloved, I think we should stop calling Yahn and May-el-eet monsters. May-el-eet said their clan was 'hew-man.' Let's use that."
Beloved looked up at him and smiled her secret smile. "Whatever you say, Llejiot. Whatever you say." In her arms Norlomt gurgled happily. For the first time in many days, Llejiot called life good.