It was nearly sunset of the third day, and Challenger couldn't remember the last time he'd been this tired.
After leaving the temple clearing, they'd stopped briefly to cache Malone and Veronica's belongings and discuss a plan. Roxton had been adamant about not leaving anything behind in that clearing that they didn't have to, and after what had happened, Challenger was inclined to agree. Which was just as well, as the hunter was in no mood to listen to contradictory opinions.
The scientist had cobbled together what little he knew of the habits of alcedo atthis, the common kingfisher, which unfortunately wasn't nearly as much as he would have liked. Challenger had never been much of a birdwatcher, but he knew a little more of the birds than Roxton did. Given their limited knowledge of their preferred streams and wetlands habitat; the limited timeframe for the search; and a purely conjectural guess on how far the pair was likely to have flown, they'd come up with a circular search pattern that should hopefully turn up some sign of the birds in the allowed time.
As soon as they'd had a plan, Roxton had set a punishing pace, searching incessantly for any sign of the kingfishers. So far they'd had no luck at all. Worse, the weather had turned unusually chilly soon after they'd left the temple, aggravating Challenger's rheumatism. From the stiff way Roxton moved first thing in the mornings, it clearly wasn't doing the hunter any favors, either. Both men were glad of their safari jackets, packed just in case of inclement weather.
"We'll need to stop and set up camp soon, Roxton," Challenger said at last, hating to state the obvious, but knowing from experience that if he didn't, the hunter was likely to push on until dark.
Ahead of Challenger on the trail, Roxton bit back an automatic protest at the suggestion. He knew the scientist was right, but he could barely stand the thought of another day ending in failure. "All right, George. Keep your eyes peeled for a likely spot."
"We passed one just a little while ago, near that last stream," Challenger offered.
"All right," Roxton said again, turning around.
Challenger paused, a little startled by the lack of an argument, and even more concerned by Roxton's apparent apathy. "I say, old boy, are you all right?"
The second the words were out of his mouth, Challenger could have kicked himself for saying something so inane, but even at the best of times he wasn't exactly a brilliant social conversationalist. Fortunately, Roxton didn't appear to take offense. Maybe he, too, was too tired, because what he did say caught the scientist entirely off guard.
"I tell you, George, I feel like I'd have more success trying to track a falcon on a cloudy day than finding two bloody kingfishers in a jungle." The hunter pushed back his hat and scanned the horizon with weary eyes. "I'm one of the best big-game hunters in the world, but this " He made the statement without modesty, but also without pride or even much hope.
"Roxton !" The protest was automatic, but Challenger fumbled for words to follow it. "We'll find them, man," he said at last.
Roxton shook his head impatiently. "What if we don't, George? What then?"
"I refuse to consider such a possibility," Challenger replied staunchly, "and so should you. We have to find them. Therefore we will."
Roxton stared at Challenger in disbelief, and then broke out in a weary chuckle. "Hardly logical of you, George."
As if anything about this entire confounded situation is logical! "Hmph." Torn between relief at the lightening of Roxton's mood and irritation at being caught out in a sentimental argument, Challenger settled for a simple snort and a quick change of subject. "Over there. I think that's a good spot."
Scanning the area with experienced eyes, Roxton was inclined to agree. "Good enough for tonight. And that deadfall there should provide plenty of wood for a fire."
It didn't take much time to set up their simple camp, even with how tired they were. A quick firepit, a primitive spit to roast the small game Roxton had shot earlier in the day, a swift search of the ground before spreading out their blankets; it was all done with the ease of long practice. Soon they were both seated before the fire, taking turns minding their slowly-roasting dinner.
"We will find them and get them changed back, John," Challenger said, breaking the silence. He was still unsettled by the hunter's uncharacteristic lack of confidence, and sought to reassure himself as well as his friend. "I've already had a few ideas on what we should do once we catch them, how we should cage them, what to do at the temple. We'll find them."
Roxton gave him a half-smile. "Oh, I expect we will. We've found smaller needles in larger haystacks than this." He chuckled as a memory surfaced. "Hell, Marguerite managed to find the pirates' treasure using a completely dummied-up map meant to lead her astray! After that, nothing should surprise me. Well, except for Marguerite bloody hiding the treasure from the rest of us!" He shook his head, still baffled by her actions, and irritated with himself for thinking of her. He'd been trying not to these last few days, the better to keep his mind absolutely focused on finding Malone and Veronica. He couldn't afford to worry about her. Like she'd said, it was just the same as if she was back in the Treehouse with the electric fence on. He'd defy a T-Rex to get past that damned barrier. She was as safe as any of them could be and he wouldn't let himself worry.
Challenger eyed him in surprise. "Is that still bothering you, Roxton? It's perfectly logical." Unlike the rest of this situation, he mused, relieved to have something concrete to think about, even something as difficult as human motivations.
"How?" The hunter frowned, narrowing his hazel eyes, genuinely startled by Challenger's response.
The scientist looked at Roxton as if encountering a brand-new and unclassifiable specimen. "John, I'm hardly an expert in interpersonal relations, but even I can figure that one out. You took her treasure from her. Of course she's hiding it from you now."
"I didn't take it!" At Challenger's look of disbelief, he elaborated. "Well, it wasn't just me. It was mostly Veronica. And I put it in a safe place, and I told Marguerite I'd make sure she got it back when we were ready to leave the Plateau!"
"Do you really think that matters?"
"It's not like I stole it!"
The scientist shook his head. Most of the time it was very easy to forget that Roxton came from such a privileged background. By and large he was as free from class consciousness as it was possible for a British lord to be. He was at home on the trail and in the Treehouse, had no trouble accepting the wisdom of native peoples, and seemed to care as little for the social amenities as the scientist himself. But every so often Roxton would say something that would bring home the fact that he really had no idea what money meant to the average citizen of the British Empire - or what a lack of it could mean. Now was one of those times. "But you did, John. You did steal it from her."
Already feeling bewildered and anxious, Roxton now felt defensive as well. "I just moved it for safekeeping, and so Veronica would give us all some peace. I said I'd give it back!"
"And what if you couldn't?" Challenger pressed. "What if you were killed, or if you were somehow injured in such a way that you lost your memory of the treasure? What then?"
"Well but I didn't mean for anything like that to happen. She knows that. And Veronica knew where it was." Not that she was likely to tell Marguerite, he acknowledged inwardly.
"And you think Veronica would have told Marguerite?" Challenger asked, echoing Roxton's thought. The scientist shook his head. "Even if she would, that isn't the point."
"Then what is?" Roxton really wanted to know. He knew this remained an issue between himself and Marguerite, and for the life of him he couldn't figure out why. Marguerite knew he was honorable! Her lack of trust in him still rankled, and her obvious belief that she was the wronged party just made it worse.
"The point is, you took away her control. Her security. Even if you meant to give the treasure back - and I'm sure you did, John - you made her dependent on you for getting back what she considered her property. I can see where our Marguerite might find that difficult to accept."
Roxton finally spoke after a stunned moment of silence. "Oh, hell, George. I hadn't thought of it that way." The hunter felt like he'd been poleaxed. When stated like that, it seemed so damned obvious and he hadn't been able to figure it out. He wasn't sure what surprised him more; that Challenger - Challenger! - had seen this where he hadn't, or that Marguerite was speaking to him at all. She has every right to be angry with me. I never meant to put her in such a position. Marguerite isn't one to want to depend on anyone else. In fact, I can't see her putting up with it. The fact that he'd tried to force her into doing just that without even realizing he was doing it, well, no wonder she was still angry with him! How am I going to put this right? How can I show her that I respect her independence, when I've just tried to take it away without even realizing it? Knowing Marguerite as he did, he had a lot of trust to try and regain, and not just if he ever wanted to finish that little picnic with her. Which he did, but more importantly, he wanted her to trust him. To know she could rely on him. Certainly not to resent him, to suspect his motives.
"I'm sure you meant well," Challenger said awkwardly, unknowingly breaking Roxton's train of thought. The firelight glinting off of their canteens reminded the inventor of another necessary chore, one that would hopefully bring an end to this rather uncomfortable conversation. "I'll go fill both of our canteens."
"Best wait," Roxton disagreed before the scientist could rise, his mind partially back on his job. "We've enough water left for tonight, and it's a little too dark to be safe wandering down to that stream. The banks are pretty steep, and it's getting into prime ambush time for the nocturnal predators."
"Very well," Challenger agreed, settling back down. He hadn't been all that anxious for a walk, anyway, particularly since Roxton seemed disinclined to continue their previous conversation. One good thing with all these streams; we've had no lack of watering places, he mused. Something about that idle thought sparked an idea, and Challenger's eyes took on a familiar, far-away look as he mentally settled back to follow the idea to its conclusion. Moments later, it was all he could do to keep from sitting bolt upright. Mother of Science! Water! Did we leave Marguerite any extra water?
"Are you all right, George?" Roxton asked curiously, noticing the scientist stiffen.
"Ah, just a touch of the rheumatism," Challenger demurred automatically while his brain raced. Confound it, I can't remember! I can't believe Roxton would have forgotten a detail like that. But then we were all so confused, and everything happened so fast. Maybe he passed over some of Malone's things before we left, and I never knew, I never saw what was actually in his pack. There was that barrier, but it wouldn't have hurt a canteen, would it? I don't remember all of what Marguerite was carrying in her pack, maybe she had plenty of rations to see her through. But I know she didn't have more than one canteen - did she? Oh, damn and blast!
"Bothering you a bit, is it?" Roxton continued when the scientist didn't relax. He could sympathize; there were some mornings, more mornings than he'd really like to admit, where his joints and bones gave him some foresight into what he himself might face in that area. Ten or twenty years from now, of course, but still. And he owed the scientist something, for helping him see where he'd stepped wrong with Marguerite. "Maybe you should look into concocting some horse liniment when we get back to the Treehouse. My groomsman swears by it."
"Country-bred superstitious poppycock," Challenger snorted, only paying attention with a quarter of his mind. "No scientific basis for such a cure." The rest of his brain was still preoccupied with the potential crisis. Should I ask Roxton about it? But what if he didn't think of it either? We're a hard day's travel from the temple at best. That'd be four full days, which might be too late if she hadn't any water. And if we did leave Marguerite behind without water and provisions, Roxton would never forgive himself, and leaving for the temple now would force us to give up on Malone and Veronica, and Roxton would never forgive himself for that, either! Challenger bit his lip. Of course, the likely answer is that Roxton did think of it. It would be unlike him not to have thought of it. But if I ask just for my peace of mind, and he didn't think of it - oh, Lord! Shaking his head, the scientist bent all his attention on trying to come up with a workable solution. Maybe I could head back myself on a pretext, just in case but I'm not likely to find my way back there very fast, even with the compass. I'm no trailblazer, and we've worked such a complicated path to get here, I'd probably not get there before we're supposed to anyway. And Roxton would want to know why, and I don't know if I could lie to him well enough. If I'm all worked up over nothing - which I must be, I have to be - then I'm taking manpower away from finding Veronica and Malone!
Roxton took one look at the fierce scowl contorting Challenger's face, and prudently decided to drop the subject. The old boy was even touchier about his rheumatism than usual. Besides which, he had more than enough of his own thinking to do. How badly had his blunder really hurt his relationship with Marguerite? I trust her enough to leave her behind on her own. To go hunting in the jungle for two birds that used to be our friends, just on her say-so that they can be changed back. But will she recognize that trust, that faith in her? And will it matter enough, compared to what I did about that bloody treasure? Despite their ups and downs, he knew there was something between them, something special. He'd sensed it from the day they'd met. We're right somehow, I know it. Surely she must know it, too?
Challenger hardly noticed the end of the conversation. I have to calm down, think this through logically. I'm thinking in circles. Facts and assumptions, basic logic. I don't have enough data, but that's nothing new.
Fact: we're severely undermanned for the task of finding Veronica and Malone as it is. Every set of eyes counts. Fact: we're at least one day, more like a day and a half, from the temple, and that's if we went straight there and didn't have to detour for some reason. Fact: we're already heading back to the temple on a route that will get us there no more than two days after we'd likely arrive as it is. Fact: two people traveling together are at less risk than one person traveling alone. Fact: I don't know what Marguerite's situation actually is. Fact: Marguerite is an expert at taking care of herself. Well, all right, that's not quite a fact, but close enough.
Assumption: My remaining here will help Roxton find Veronica and Malone. Call that 35% more likely, as two pairs of eyes are better than one, but I'm not the best field observer. Give us 90% odds of seeing something if there's something to be seen overall, because Roxton is an excellent field observer, and he can devote more of his attention to searching for signs because he has a companion to help keep an eye out for danger. Assumption: On his own, Roxton is only 65% likely to see signs at best, because he has to keep an eye out for so many other things. Assumption: Marguerite started off with at least some water or food. That's nearly 100% likely. Assumption: Roxton thought to make sure Marguerite had sufficient provisions for seven days. Given his nature, I'd say that's 75% likely; normally higher, but given the events of the day, 75%'s about right. Assumption: Marguerite thought to make sure she had enough provisions before we left. That's normally a sure bet, but given the odd way she was acting, I can't put that any higher than 60%. Assumption: I can actually make it back to the temple complex on my own, and in time to make a difference, if Marguerite really is in trouble. Challenger grimaced. I don't really have enough data to guess on that - 35%?
Let's break this down further. Fact: the average human can live for approximately three days without any water at all, given an absolute minimum of physical activity and approximately average temperatures. I'd say Marguerite is above average in her survival skills.
Chances that Marguerite will be all right, either because she has sufficient provisions, or because she'll find a way to make whatever she does have last long enough for us to get there on schedule: 85%.
Chances that Roxton will immediately abort the search for Veronica and Malone if he even suspects Marguerite might be insufficiently provisioned: near 100%.
Chances of finding Veronica and Malone if we stop searching now and return to the temple complex: 5%, for random blind luck.
Chances of finding Veronica and Malone if we keep on doing what we're doing: well, it's still a needle in a haystack, but it certainly is better than 5%. Call it 25%.
Chances of Roxton being able to live with himself, if I do ask the question and he has to make a choice between Marguerite's welfare and finding Malone and Veronica in time: not good. Not good at all. John blames himself far too easily for things as it is.
Chances of my being able to live with myself, if I don't ask the question and it does turn out to have mattered: a damn sight better than that.
Challenger nodded to himself, his mind made up. I have to take this risk, for myself, for Marguerite, for Malone and Veronica. I can live with making this decision for John. God - and Marguerite! - forgive me if I'm wrong.