Decline
Chapter 3
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Some walked. Some shuffled. But there was at least one who frolicked.

Marguerite felt wonderful. Healthier and more energetic than she ever had before in her life. “Come on, George! Keep up!” she called with a humorous lilt accenting her patrician voice. She tipped the dark hat slightly back off of her forehead, enjoying the feel of sunlight on her attractive face. Marguerite smiled mysteriously. She had a secret. That miraculous pouch of powder given to her by the shaman was in her backpack. She knew it would be a kindness to introduce it to the uncomfortable professor, not to mention Roxton and Malone who didn’t look one hundred percent themselves, but to be truthful she was taking pleasure in their current irritation. Often her companions complained about a certain member of their party’s apathy. Now it was Marguerite’s turn to lampoon her friends. “Just a few more hours and we’ll be home. Won‘t that be nice?” she said, with mock seriousness.

Lifting aching eyeballs from where they stared at the dirt trail before him, Challenger grunted his reply. His head and ears hurt. So did his tongue. Whatever it was the Zanga put into their celebratory beverages was not something he wished to partake in again. Adding to Challenger’s misery, Marguerite would not stop chattering. It was as if she was doing it just to annoy, knowing how horrible he felt.

“I know!” Marguerite, walking with a robust stride, turned about to look at her cohorts who were trailing behind, “When we get home Veronica and I will prepare a late supper while you strong men fix the hole in our roof. There’s a full moon and it shouldn‘t take long. You‘ve been putting it off for the longest time.” Her expression was inspired as she continued, apparently unaware of her companions’ petered-out stares. “Narinza - she’s a Zanga spiritualist and weather-watcher - told me there might be rain in the next few days so it’s a perfect opportunity …”

Veronica, like Challenger, noted Marguerite’s zeal, that hale and hearty glint in her manner, and it disturbed the jungle girl. This morning she had been suffering and Veronica thought they’d hear Marguerite complaining all the way home. Yet, now she was the picture of health. How did that happen so quickly? When Veronica asked, after they had all met in the middle of the village - saying goodbye to Assai and other Zanga - Marguerite had only said that someone brought her what she needed and it knocked the headache away. At the time Veronica thought she was talking about coffee.

“Marguerite, will you slow down?” Roxton called to the rapidly moving brunette. She was several meters ahead of them, sometimes trotting and often times stopping suddenly, as if something of great interest in the jungle had caught her attention. He had never quite seen Marguerite like this. Well, maybe a couple times when she thought she knew where the hiding place of a potential stash of diamonds were, but even then she was more direct and less erratic.

Although not quite hung over Roxton didn’t get much sleep last night. He stayed up awhile with the Zanga warriors, keeping watch in case that T-Rex decided to make an appearance. Thankfully, the dinosaur decided the village was not worth its time. It eventually moved on, having been heard but never seen, and in the early morning, around five AM, Roxton returned to his and the men’s hut -- only to be awakened a couple hours later by a gearing up Malone.

Adding to Roxton’s uneasiness was an eerie suspicion that they were being watched. He kept his rifle ready; fingers near the trigger.

“She’s acting like there’s a pile of gold waiting for her back at the treehouse or something.” Malone comment, watching Marguerite‘s back. While not quite as badly influence by last night’s indulgence as Challenger he’d be lying if he said he was thriving. “And I’m *not* fixing any blasted roof.” The reporter spoke quietly but curtly beside Veronica, “At least, not tonight.” he added.

She nodded and almost made an observation of her own when a frightening sound caught the jungle girl and the explorers attention. It was a frantic scream but not an ordinary exclamation of fear or warning. “It’s not human.” Veronica said, pulling both knives from the back of her skirt’s belt.

Several yards in front of her friends, Marguerite stopped in her tracks and twisted slowly about when she too heard the cry. She watched as Roxton lifted his rifle, preparing to shoot an as yet unseen enemy. But then he and his movements were blocked from sight when a large creature moved between she and those who had lagged.

The explorers could only pause and stare. It was a dinosaur to be sure but unlike any they had encountered in the past.

“A dwarf allosaur!” Challenger nearly gushed, his expression alit with wonder. “And she’s a beauty!” The Professor’s headache was not gone but, for the moment, it was forgotten as he moved in slightly closer to the monster, fascinated.

The dinosaur hissed and screamed its high pitched warning yet again.

“And what a sound it makes!” Malone commented, hands to his ears, looking over and upward. “This is a *dwarf*?” he asked, to be certain he heard Challenger correctly. It wasn’t quite as tall as a tyrannosaurus rex but still not something he’d want to meet in a dark alley.

“Yes, do you see those red crests above each eye? This is an allosaur, alright. They have thinner skins than most dinosaurs but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous.”

Roxton aimed his rifle as the creature moved forward slightly, “Is it a carnivore or not?”

As if to answer, the allosaur opened its large beak-like mouth in threat to reveal a row of serrated teeth, just perfect for biting into prey, pulling apart tendons and crushing bones.

“I’d say that‘s a *yes*.” came from Veronica.

“Hey you!” Marguerite, who had been standing directly behind the dinosaur, forgotten in lieu of discovery, suddenly made her presence known by kicking the allosaur’s tail.

For a moment her companions just stared at her, astonished.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you!” she reiterated with another kick.

“Marguerite, what the hell are you doing?!” Roxton suddenly shouted, horrified by the risk she was taking. He watched as she skipped from side to side, avoiding the dinosaur’s swishing backside as it tried to figure out what the annoyance was behind it.

“Someone has to catch this week’s dinner and I guess it‘s my turn!’ Marguerite replied animatedly to her friends and jumped full force, with both booted feet, on the allosaur’s tail. The monster screamed its fury and pain then turned around completely to face her, ignoring the full course meal for a delicate drink of human female. Without another thought, Marguerite swiveled about and took off running down the trail, “Catch me if you can, big boy!” she goaded and was rewarded by another scream then the vibration of the dinosaur doing exactly what she wanted.

“Oh, my God!” Challenger shouted and ran with the others in the same direction where Marguerite and her new acquaintance were traveling.

Adrenalin raced through Marguerite’s veins and she found herself inexplicably laughing, giddy over the unknown which lay ahead. The chase was incredibly exciting for her, feeling the monster’s girth shake the ground around them and knowing, at any moment, if she made a mistake her life could very well be over.

Then she saw her salvation. It was exactly what she was looking for. A mound of dirt. Better yet, a dirt pile with a medium sized flat stone laying directly in the center. The mysteries of the plateau were insurmountable, Marguerite thought with a wide grin. She then looked upward as she raced the path and saw a tree limb. Not too big and not too small. Perfect. “This is getting better and better.” she mumbled. Then, with a loud, “Yeeha!” Marguerite launched herself onto the stone with both feet and propelled herself upward where her hands gripped the tree limb. The force of impact caused her body to drive itself in a great winding arch but she never let loose of the limb. Marguerite made a ninety degree turn with her body around the branch and, maintaining balance, allowed her boots to come up against the back of the passing allosaur’s head, kicking it with great force.

Baffled, the dinosaur hesitated underneath the tree and looked from side to side but could not figure out where its prey had gone.

“A brain the size of a peanut.” Marguerite said, recalling something Challenger or someone else had once told her. Now, sitting comfortably on the bough, she pulled her pistol from its snug holster.

They had seen it but could not believe their eyes.

“Has she gone crazy?” Malone exclaimed.

Roxton again pulled his rifle and aimed. He was about to discharge his weapon at the predator when he heard Marguerite shout: “Up here!”. The dinosaur looked upward into the tree. A loud report was heard and then another. The allosaur tripped backward and staggered. Roxton lowered his rifle as he watched it drop to the ground dead. Marguerite, at close range, had shot it in both eyes, pulping its brain and effectively ending this allosaur’s life on the plateau.

With a triumphant grin Marguerite holstered the pistol and smiled down at her approaching friends, “That should keep us in meat for two weeks.” she laughed then, noting Malone right below her, called: “Catch me.” and slipped off the limb.

Startled, Malone saw what she intended and just got his arms out in time to catch Marguerite as she fell into them.

“Good catch.” Marguerite said, sliding from his arms. She then leaned forward and pecked Malone quickly on the forehead in appreciation, “Now,” She turned and drew a knife from her boot. Kneeling, she said: “let’s slice and dice this thing and take it home. I wonder if it tastes like raptor or if it has a flavor all its own. Kind of like veal or …”

“Marguerite, shut up.”

Stunned, Marguerite’s knife was poised in mid air, unmoving. She looked upward. Veronica was staring down at her, tense hands on her shapely hips, and she was furious. Marguerite looked past and beside Veronica at the men, also staring, with expressions that did not disguise their anger.

“I don’t understand.” Marguerite said lowly, genuinely perplexed.

“Do you realize how close you were to being killed?” Challenger asked, unflinching.

Dazed, she nodded. “Certainly there was an element of danger …” Marguerite began.

“There was more than that, Marguerite, and you know it.” Mirroring the woman, Malone kneeled beside the dinosaur and withdrew his own knife. Carefully, he began to carve on the beast, trying to recall where the sweetest meat of such a large dinosaur could be found. “You took a stupid chance. One that didn’t *need* to be taken.”

“You were showing off, Marguerite.” Veronica accused, turning from her, looking about for large leaves. Once carved the meat would need to be wrapped for their journey home.

“I was …” Marguerite’s eyes were wide now, positively astounded by her companions opinion of her and what had just happened.

“Roxton had the allosaur in his site, Marguerite.” Challenger added, thumping the hunter‘s rifle as he stood beside him. “He could have felled the beast at any time.”

Marguerite’s voice caught in her throat, “But the opportunity was there. I saw it. I thought I could contribute …” She looked up at Roxton as he gazed down at her, “You understand, don’t you John?” she asked, the earlier cheer that had infused her senses with a blanket of well being was rapidly dwindling away with each condemning glance and biting word.

“It was a new dinosaur to us, Marguerite.” he said lowly, unsmiling. “We didn’t know how it’d react to any given situation or even if it runs in a pack. You jumped in and blindly took control with no thought or consideration of the consequences. You not only jeopardized your life but our lives as well.” Roxton’s eyes swept the area. He still had a feeling they were being watched. “You were being …”

“… selfish.” Veronica murmured, approaching with the large leaves. “But then again, looking out for yourself is what you do best, isn’t it Marguerite?” She crouched down and helped Malone, not bothering to look at the bewildered brunette.

For the first time in a long while Marguerite could feel her eyes stinging with unshed tears. She couldn’t believe it. Why were they treating her as if she had done something unjustifiable. Calling her selfish? They were all going to benefit here. It made no sense. Each of her friends had, at one time or another, charged into a dangerous situation. Each had done something equally as reckless while they were here on the plateau. Many an occasion their actions weren’t nearly as successful as Marguerite’s folly.

It wasn’t fair. She didn’t deserve this. Marguerite pressed her lips together hard in a thin line. “There’s one thing I *do* know …” Marguerite’s voice gained strength but shook with emotion. She was addressing all her companions but she looked directly at Lord Roxton as she spoke, “… if it had been *Veronica* that brought this beast down you would be congratulating her, telling her how very clever she is, and admiring her hunting skills.” Then Marguerite added, “And if Finn were still here with us you all would be doing the same thing. Probably even applauding her actions.“ Marguerite then turned and closed her eyes, hiding her pain as she slowly walked to the shade of a tree a few yards away, leaning against it.

Challenger glanced once at Roxton whose expression shown a slight glimmer of guilt. Yet, the hunter merely leaned over and helped Veronica and Malone. Challenger then looked to where Marguerite stood, her back to them. **She has a point … Perhaps we are being a little hard on her.** a voice echoed in his still aching head.

If the others were having similar thought they gave no indication.

It wouldn’t be until much later, after the situation had nearly exploded in a horrible act of desperation, that the explorers would know why it was they didn’t tell Marguerite she might be right. She *did* show tremendous courage. Perhaps, if they had realized what was happening to them, how they were being manipulated, what happened in the next couple days could have been avoided.

***

Ennie, watching Lord Roxton and the others with her mind, seeing how he and his family were reacting to the events she set in motion, smiled in the darkness of her hut. “I might not ever have you,” Ennie whispered, “and you may not ever love me …” She stared hard at the flame before her, “ … but the woman you *do* love will be taken from you. And you and your friends will forever feel responsible for her decline …”

The woman laughed, evilly.

***