by M.D. Bloemker
(previously published in After The Dance)
"Those are the only choices?" Benny chuckled, expertly spearing two frankfurters and dangling them over the small campfire. "Go on, just like I did."
"I don't even like these things," MacKensie grumbled, fumbling the slippery meat onto the end of his stick.
"I already told you three times, you don't have to eat them. Just cook them. Whoa, whoa, not that close. Like this, see?"
MacKensie glowered, deliberately dipping his frankfurter and getting some satisfaction from the brief flashes of flaming grease that made Benny flinch. "And I suppose you're still going to insist that hiking a half mile up a mountain to roast hot dogs and marshmallows is part of this marvelous plan you have to wrap this investigation up by the end of the week."
"By the end of the day," Benny corrected, inspecting his work with delight. "Look, you might be ready to pack it all in and hand your boss a neatly typed report correlating facts and quotes and assorted boring details, but I smell a story here."
"All I smell is scorched marshmallow," MacKensie muttered, looking ruefully at the congealed mass on the rocks ringing the fire.
"That's because you were either not listening or you just have no imagination. Common denominator, Jack. What have I been telling you about looking for a common denominator?"
Jonathan considered for a moment. "Nothing," he frowned, confused.
"Remind me to get your ears cleaned for your birthday. We talked to, oh...how many witnesses? A dozen, two dozen? What did they all have in common?"
"They were all borderline hysterics."
"Besides that. They were all camping in this area!"
"What else would they be doing in this wilderness?" MacKensie muttered. "Bowling?"
"Hey, I got better things to do than set up straight lines for you, Costello. Are you really interested in this or did you just want to sulk in peace?"
"I want an explanation," Jonathan sighed. "Of course they were all camping in this area, Benedek. But why does that mean that we have to?"
"Because I discovered one other very interesting little parallel. Every single one of our hysterical little campers was roasting hot dogs and/or marshmallows at the time of their respective sightings."
Jonathan stared at him. "That," he said finally, "is absolutely ludicrous."
"Ludicrous," Benedek mused. "That's the fifth time today you've used that word. Dr. M give you one of those word-a-day calendars for Christmas?"
"Wait a minute." Jonathan held up a hand as suspicion drew lines in his forehead. "What were you doing over there while you had me starting the fire?"
"There? There where?"
"Fatuity doesn't become you, Benedek. Over there, by the rocks." He glanced around, noting the high sloping walls of the steep cliff surrounding them. "Which, I might add, happens to be the only natural path in and out of this little cul-de-sac."
"Oh. There. I was, ah...just setting the alarm."
MacKensie considered his partner's ingenuous grin with growing apprehension. "This is a lure," he decided, eyes sparking angrily. "You actually believe that you can attract this alleged creature by roasting hot dogs and marshmallows?"
"Yeah," Benny said, his voice pitched defensively high. "It's a little subtler than calling in an air strike."
As Benedek steeled himself to withstand the expected blast, MacKensie surprised him by releasing his breath in an exasperated sigh instead of a flood of invective. "You did it to me again," he laughed self-deprecatingly. "Every time I think you can't possibly surpass yourself for sheer..."
Benny's sharp cry and gesture cut Jonathan off in mid-chuckle. "Didja hear that?" he whispered, eyes wide.
"Sh!" He inclined his head, listening. Jonathan strained, but could detect nothing but the slight rustle of tree branches in the wind and started to say so. But Benny scrambled to his knees, snatching the hot dogs off his stick and throwing them onto the fire. "Marshmallows, where...? Grab them, dump them in."
"Are you insane?" MacKensie gasped as Benny yanked his stick away from him. "What are you...?"
"It's working, Jack! Time to reel the big one in! Listen."
And this time he heard it, a soft rustle that could have been part of the natural rhythm surrounding them, but with a harsher edge that put it completely out of place. For a moment, just a moment, his mind created a vision of what was approaching, forged from a dozen or so semi-coherent eyewitness descriptions, and his throat went dry. But in the time it took him to swallow, common sense kicked back in. "It's probably just another hiker," he protested, falling back as one of the hot dogs lying in the fire exploded, spitting hot grease at him. "And you'd better not have rigged up anything dangerous that could get us involved in a..."
A shrill cry split the air, part surprise and part outrage.
Jonathan turned pale and gulped. "...lawsuit," he finished weakly, jumping to his feet a half second behind Benny.
MacKensie, suddenly and absolutely certain that he didn't want to look, skidded to a halt as Benedek plunged through the heavy brush and down the sloping path. The cries continued, incoherent squawks that grew shriller and angrier. Then he heard Benny's shout: "Whoa!"
"Benedek?" He edged closer. "Wh-what happened?"
There was a pause that drove panic into his heart, but then Benedek's voice, somewhat puzzled, called back. "I think I bagged Ethel Merman."
"You ba you what?"
"I need a hand here, Jack!"
The slightly desperate edge in Benny's voice broke his confused paralysis. Shoving aside the stubborn brush, he stumbled down the slope, and slid to a halt a few yards away from where Benny stood, hauling at the arm of a small but stoutly built woman, who was still emitting high-pitched and highly indignant sounds. "Don't stand there with your mouth hanging open, I need help here," Benny growled as he struggled to help the woman upright.
Jonathan sprang to the woman's aid, taking her other arm and steadying her until her gasps eased and the red flush began to drain from her face. MacKensie took advantage of the time by glaring at Benedek over the woman's head. One glance at the shallow pit nearby told him everything he needed to know about the reason for the woman's fall and subsequent apoplexy.
"Are you all right?" Benny addressed the woman solicitously, lightly brushing stray dirt and dead leaves from her shoulder. "That was quite a fall you took there, ma'am."
"I'm all right," she huffed, firmly pushing his hand away. "I'm..."
She turned to glance behind her and stopped, frowning. Jonathan swallowed, realizing that it wouldn't take an intuitive genius to realize that the shallow ditch was freshly dug and the stray brush that had covered it a little too neatly arranged. And although she appeared to be well past the age and physical condition of a typical recreational hiker, her sturdily constructed shirt and canvas jeans and well-worn but sensible hiking boots said otherwise.
Her narrow-eyed searching stare at him cut through MacKensie's dread visions of personal injury lawsuits. Her head swiveled, delivering the same glare at Benedek. Considerably calmer, she nodded once. "I'm fine. Silly of me didn't watch where I was going. I could have broken my neck."
Benny and Jonathan exchanged puzzled glances. But before either of them could figure out why her claim of carelessness still sounded accusatory, she spoke again, voice rising with indignation. "Is that your campfire?"
She broke away from them, marching up the slope into their makeshift campsite. As they scrambled to follow, she stalked over to the dying fire and without hesitation, snagged a nearby plastic container of water and proceeded to douse the flames.
"Excuse me..." Benny edged up to her, painting on his most amicable smile. "You wouldn't mind telling us why you're breaking up our picnic, would you?"
Dropping the empty container, she spared a moment to glare at him. "You," she pronounced, "are an idiot." With that, she squatted down and began to pile handfuls of loose dirt on the smoldering remains.
"Excuse me again, ma'am, but that's something I only let my friends call me. Ma'am? Hello?"
She looked up, waving a peremptory hand. "Look, idiot. You got nothing but rock wall on three sides. You got one exit, and that's blocked by dead brush. What happens if the wind blows the sparks out there? Bam there goes your only way out, right?"
Jonathan started, eyes going wide as he looked around, vividly imagining the scenario. She was right; his heart started pounding violently to realize just how right she was. Benny smiled weakly when MacKensie's stare settled on him. "I was being careful," he said without much conviction.
"I'm sure they'll put that on your headstone." She stomped the dirt-covered campsite soundly with a fist sized rock, then stared at it as though daring it to defy her by smoldering. Finally, with a satisfied grunt, she tried to rise.
Seeing her in difficulty, Jonathan offered his assistance, which she took with only a mild glare of disdain. Dusting off her hands, she then offered one to MacKensie. "Name's Lydia."
"Jonathan. Jonathan MacKensie," he said, shaking her hand and noting with relief that a friendly light seemed to lurk within her eyes despite the stern set of her features. "And this is..."
"Edgar Benedek, ma'am," Benny supplied with a disarming grin. "But my close personal friends call me an idiot."
She nodded stiffly at him, but both caught the smile she couldn't completely suppress. "With good reason, I imagine," she grumbled. "Well...look. I'm sorry about ruining your little cookout here, but you deserved it. There's some good spots farther down the mountain, so I suggest you pack up and try again."
Turning on her heel, she moved off, but Jonathan went after her, stopping her just at the top of the sloping path. "Excuse me, ma'am? I just...well, I just wanted to thank you for, uh..."
She squinted up at him dubiously. "For ruining your picnic? Look, forget it. If you want to thank me, take up tennis. You'll be a lot safer, believe me."
"Excuse me again, ma'am..."
"I'm not your grandmother," she snapped. "The name's Lydia."
He studied her, concentrating on that strange feeling that he knew her from somewhere. The slight trill she gave her words finally loosed the memory. "Dr. Schnetzer?" he gasped. "Dr. Lydia Schnetzer?"
Her eyes still harbored suspicion, but the tiny, stocky body puffed up slightly. "I know you?" she ventured.
He grabbed her hand, pumping it vigorously. "Yes! Well, no. I mean, not really, I...I attended several of your lectures when I was a graduate student."
"Ah, yes." The hard edge melted from her lined face. "You and five thousand other young eager minds. What's your field, young man? Biology? Geology? Ornithology?"
"Anthropology. I teach at the Georgetown Institute."
"Georgetown?" It was her turn to peer at him while searching a memory. "MacKensie?"
With an effort, Jonathan kept his smile as he nodded. "You've probably heard of my father? Leonard MacKensie?"
"Not unless he published a paper six years ago on the anthropomorphic aspects of Aztec cultures and religious practices."
Jonathan's face lit up. "That was mine."
She nodded, appraising him with a critical eye. "Interesting paper," she said. "Not half bad."
From what he recalled of her sanguinary lectures, he realized that this was high praise indeed and glowed. "Thank you," he managed breathlessly. "Thank you very much."
Her expression changed subtly and MacKensie held his breath. "You on vacation here?" she said coolly.
"Ah...well, yes and no," he began, unsure whether he wanted to admit to this legendary scientist that he and a tabloid reporter were on the trail of Bigfoot. At that moment, a terrible howl interrupted them. Jonathan spun around to see Benny on the ground, clutching at his leg in agony.
"My ankle!" Benny cried as Jonathan sprang to his aid. "I think it's broken, ow! don't touch it! No, don't do that, it hurts."
"Can you stand?" MacKensie asked worriedly.
"If I could stand, I wouldn't be here on the ground...ow!" His snappish reply dissolved into a long, soulful moan.
"Here, let me have a look," Lydia said brusquely. Jonathan, unsuccessful at getting Benny to let him anywhere near the injured limb, yielded to her without argument. Benny, hissing his pain through gritted teeth, recoiled when she reached for his leg, but a sharp look from her disintegrated his resistance. At a gesture from the woman, Jonathan crouched behind Benny, supporting the man's shoulder as she removed Benny's hiking boot. As carefully as she worked, Benny moaned and screeched at every movement and it was all Jonathan could do to keep him upright.
"Oh, be still," she snapped, working off the boot.
"Hey, I'm in major pain here," he returned defensively. "Ow!"
"Then be a mensch. How did you manage this, anyway?"
"I, uh...well, I was just going to get our packs, and I must have hit a gopher hole or something."
His explanation, punctuated by gasps and pained exclamations, ended with a sickly grin that died under the look Lydia gave him. But without a word, she bent over her task again, easing off Benny's sock. He whimpered at her gentle probe of his ankle, and convulsed with a howl when she pressed her fingers around the bones.
"Jack, she's killing me," Benny gasped. "Promise me I won't go unavenged."
"Shut up, Benedek," MacKensie growled, relieved that despite the man's obvious pain, he still retained some of his good humor.
Lydia shook her head, lips pressed together tightly. "No swelling. No bruising. Can't have hurt it too badly probably just stunned. Try putting some weight on it."
Despite Benny's weak protests, Jonathan hauled the injured man up and let him steady himself on his good leg. "Go on," MacKensie urged. "Try it. I've got you."
With the air of a martyr, Benny touched his bare foot to the ground and collapsed. "I can't," he moaned as Jonathan struggled to keep his balance and both of them upright. "I'm telling you, it's broken."
"Okay, okay," Lydia said, looking either alarmed or annoyed at Benny's ongoing distress. "Where's your vehicle? I'll help you get back so you can get this mensch here to a hospital."
"I won't make it, it's too far," Benny insisted.
"We're in the car park," Jonathan told her. "About a mile and a half down the trail."
"Wonderful," Lydia growled. "Idiot here won't make it two feet, no doubt. There's only one thing for it, I suppose. Come on follow me."
Jonathan, still bowed under Benny's sagging weight, frowned after her as she deftly snagged their backpacks and retrieved Benny's boot. "Ah follow you where?"
"I have a place a little farther up the trail. And I should have an Ace bandage in the first aid kit, so we'll get him fixed up in no time. So let's go." Pausing by them on her way to the cul-de-sac exit, she gave Benny a strange, appraising stare. "Hop to."
To Jonathan's surprise, Benedek emitted a low chuckle out of her earshot. "You know something, Jack?" he said ;sotto voce;, his voice steady and unstrained. "That woman could teach me a thing or two."
By the time they'd struggled up the trail and nearly five hundred yards off it through dense woods and brush to a snug little cabin nestled in a small clearing, Jonathan still hadn't figured out Benny's comment. Most of his strength and concentration went into carrying Benedek's weight against his shoulder and side and by the time Lydia unlocked the door and ushered them inside, MacKensie was sure that he was closer to collapse than his injured friend.
"Put him down here," Lydia directed, sweeping up a knitted afghan as Jonathan lowered Benny onto the quilt-covered mattress lying in far corner on the dirt floor. Bunching the blanket, she tucked the pad under Benny's injured leg, then paused to make an inspection of the ankle. Her brief look up at them told it without words. Still no bruising or swelling. But Benny was still emitting hisses and moans of pain at every movement and touch.
"I'll fetch some water and we'll try soaking it," she said gruffly, and for some reason Jonathan had the impression that she wasn't talking about Benedek's foot.
One quick look around the austere cabin confirmed on of MacKensie's suspicions; no running water or electricity. "I'll fetch it for you," he offered.
She rummaged through a small chest, pulling out a white plastic box. "It's easier for me to do it than to give you directions. Here." From the box, she produced a cloth roll and tossed it over to him. "You know how to wrap an ankle?"
Ignoring Benny's mild snort of amusement, Jonathan nodded as he deftly freed the velcro closures. "I've had...some experience," he admitted.
"Good." Retrieving a sturdy bucket from a hook, she turned in the open doorway. "I'll be back in ten minutes. Try not to get into any trouble."
Benny started chuckling the moment the door closed behind her, settling back against the soft quilt with his arms folded behind his head. "I think she's got our number, buds."
Jonathan regarded him, narrow-eyed, finally fixating on the nebulous suspicions that had plagued him since they'd left the campsite. He leaned over and, without warning, gave Benny's injured leg a sound rap.
Benedek jumped reflexively, staring at Jonathan in astonishment. "What the hell was that f?" He choked, blinked, then glanced at his propped-up foot in chagrin. "Oh. Ow."
"Oh," Jonathan mimicked angrily, yanking the afghan out from under his foot.
"Hey, hey," Benny said, bending over to snatch it back. "Let's have a little more consideration for the wounded here."
"Consideration?" MacKensie threw the blanket back in Benny's face. "I'll give you as much as you gave me. What in the name of heaven are you doing?"
"The same thing we've been doing for the past week investigating." Sporting a serene smile, Benny replaced the afghan carefully as Jonathan stared at him, nonplussed.
When he could speak again, Jonathan said, with forced calm, "Well, would you mind explaining to me what your spurious injury has to do with our investigation?"
"Hey, look, I heard you two over there plumping up each other's egos. She's a scientist, am I right?"
"What's her line?"
"Originally zoology," MacKensie said after a moment to think. "I think she's a zooanthroplogist now."
"Now there's a familiar word. Why do you suppose that is?"
Jonathan remembered quite clearly why it was a familiar word. It was one used by both him and Dr. Moorhouse when they'd originally discussed what specialized field of anthropology would most likely take interest in the recent Bigfoot scare. The words "It's just a coincidence" were out of MacKensie's mouth before he realized just how much he didn't really believe that to be true.
"Yeah, sure, life is full of 'em," Benny nodded wisely.
"Wait a minute you expect me to believe you faked a fall just because you suspected she was an anthropologist?"
"No, I faked it because I heard her name." Benny leaned forward, eyes aglow. "Dr. Lydia Schnetzer. You wanna know where I heard that name before?
He really wasn't sure he did want to know, but curiosity got the better of him. "Where?"
"Town hall, buds. Remember I told you that these Bigfoot sightings started coming fast and furious when the state finally opened these new trails up the mountain? Well, they held all the hearings in town, and her name is all over the place. She was trying to block the opening of the campground and the trails, right up until the last minute. What does that tell you?"
"I'd rather know what it seems to be telling you," MacKensie said uneasily.
"That she's got something to hide, of course."
Benny held up a finger as Jonathan inflated. "Don't tell me, let me guess. Ludicrous, right?"
"No asinine," MacKensie growled. "Sometimes, Benedek..."
"She's coming back in less than five minutes, buds you gonna wrap this ankle or what?"
Muttering under his breath, Jonathan unrolled the bandage. "And now you're expecting me to go along with this...this unconscionable subterfuge."
"Just until we can ask her a few questions, maybe do a little snooping around..."
He held up his hands defensively at the angry glare MacKensie gave him. "Okay, okay. I'll stick to the questions, I promise. Then I'll make a miraculous recovery and we'll be outta here. Not so tight!"
"What kind of questions?"
"Oh, the usual. What are you doing here, how long have you been doing it, what is it you're trying to hide, that sort of thing."
"I think that, all things considered, maybe I should ask the questions."
"Are you suggesting that I lack tact?"
"That wasn't the word I was thinking of. Benedek, this woman is an intelligent and highly respected scientist, and I won't have you treating her like Al Capone's gun moll."
"Okay, okay, if you tell me to treat her like glass, I will, but" He pointed a finger, deadly serious. "I'm not leaving here until I get the answers I want."
"Five years, give or take a month or so." Lydia maneuvered Benny's foot into the bucket, and this time his hiss of pain was unfeigned.
"That's cold," he choked, hyperventilating as Lydia tightened her grip on his leg.
"It's a mountain stream, of course it's cold," she said, as patiently as she would have spoken to a small child. She returned her attention to Jonathan. "I have a place in town, but I spend most of my time up here. I hit the lecture circuit for about two months in the winter, just enough money to keep me in groceries and typewriter ribbon, and then head back up here."
"What are you working on now?" Jonathan kept a straight face despite the show Benny was making of biting his hand in deep distress.
"Cataloguing the wildlife in this region." Her lined face clouded over. "Those fools spout off about giving nature to the people. Over fifty different species of birds, mammals and insects have disappeared from this area ever since those trails were opened up. But do they care? Do they listen? All they care about is the money those irresponsible, beer-drinking 'naturalists' bring with them in their expensive campers and designer pup-tents." She paused, taking a deep breath to reduce the color in her face and the high angry pitch in her voice. Benny and Jonathan exchanged uneasy glances, realizing that she lumped them into that irresponsible multitude. MacKensie nodded once, a tacit assurance that he found Lydia's explanation reasonable. But, with a slight pursing of his lips, Benny shook his head.
Unable to give vent to exasperation, Jonathan settled for a sympathetic smile directed at Lydia. "I understand how distressing it must be for you, as a zoologist, to watch it happen."
She looked up in genuine surprise. "As a zoologist? As a human being, you mean. If I could get people to use their so-called intelligence, to just look beyond their own noses..." She trailed off with a helpless gesture. "To get them to show just one shred of responsibility for anything other than their own immediate welfare I would die a happy woman."
Jonathan acknowledged her impassioned statement with a quiet nod, which seemed to mollify and calm her. Then, remembering what she still held in her hand, she turned to Benny. "How are you doing?"
"You tell me. Have I turned the right shade of blue yet?"
"You're fine," she decided with a short laugh. "There's some towels in the black chest over there. You can dry up and wrap up while I see what there is for lunch."
Envisioning a tasteless repast of tree bark and wild berries, Benny offered, "I think we had some hot dogs left."
Retrieving a towel from the chest, Jonathan heaved one at Benedek's head, scoring two points. Nearby, Lydia shoved aside a board which proved to cover a largish hole in the ground. "I can do a little better than that," she said as she stepped down. "Tuna fish on rye?"
"Tuna fish on rye?" Benny echoed voicelessly, eyebrows arched.
"With garlic pickles," her muffled voice enjoined from some point just below them.
"What does she have down there, a kosher deli?" Benny started to get up, but Jonathan pushed him back with a warning glare.
A loaf of bread wrapped in plastic came sailing out of the hole, followed by more gently placed jars and cans. Then her head appeared, and this time Jonathan recovered enough to spring forward, helping her up the ladder. Once the hole was safely covered, he gathered up the various food articles and deposited them on a nearby table.
"This is amazing," he laughed, inspecting the labels. "You're able to keep all this in a cellar?"
"Not exactly," she amended, producing a box of utensils from the black chest and selecting a can opener. "I make weekly trips to town for my mail, so I restock my perishables." She patted the pickle jar fondly. "Couldn't last a day without these."
Jonathan took on the task of rewrapping Benedek's ankle while Lydia threw together three sandwiches, generously garnished with pickle spears. She pulled up the only chair while Jonathan settled on the dirt floor next to the mattress, accepting a laden paper plate from her.
"Okay, so I know about you," she said, pointing at Jonathan with the hand holding a sandwich half. "What about you? What do you do to keep body and soul together?"
"Me?" Benedek swallowed his mouthful. "I'm a...journalist."
"Oh?" Her eyes narrowed slightly as she toyed with a pickle slice on her paper plate. "Free-lance?"
"Yeah," he admitted, covering his hesitation with an expansive nod. "For the most part."
She nodded, remaining silent for a time as Jonathan and Benny once again exchanged uneasy glances. "An anthropologist and a journalist," she finally remarked. "Mighty odd pair-up."
"So we've been told," Jonathan offered with a weak smile.
"And you're vacationing here."
Neither a question nor a statement; to MacKensie's ears, it had an accusatory ring, as though she were daring them to speak the full truth so that she could compare it to whatever conclusion she'd already drawn.
"Yup, back to nature," Benny jumped in when MacKensie's hesitation threatened to become obvious. "That's us."
"Yup," she agreed with faint sarcasm reflected in her steady glare. "That's you."
"This is delicious," Jonathan interjected hastily. "Dr. Schne Lydia. I can't thank you enough for what you've done for us..."
"Forget it." She set aside the uneaten half of her impromptu lunch and stood, dusting off her hands. "You can pay me back by taking your vacation in the Bahamas from now on. And maybe you could line up a lecture booking at G.I. for me next January?"
He smiled at the twinkle in her eye that belied her laconic manner. "I certainly will."
"Well..." She sighed, glancing at her watch. "It's still early, so I can let you rest up here for a while longer, but long about three or so we should think about heading you back to civilization. Get that foot looked after properly."
"I don't know..." Benny began, forehead creased with deep lines of pain.
"Of course," Jonathan agreed hastily, making a quick gesture for Benedek to cool it.
From two hooks near the door, she pulled down a knapsack and a large straw hat. "If you think you're going to be all right here, then you'll excuse me I'm running late."
"Late?" MacKensie echoed, puzzled.
"My observations. They're an integral part of my research," she explained impatiently.
"Oh, yes," Jonathan nodded, abashed. "Yes, of course. We'll be fine. And...thank you again, Dr. Sch Lydia."
She acknowledged him with a stiff nod. "I'll be back around 2:30. If you get thirsty, there's apple juice in the cellar and the stream is about 200 yards to the northeast. Help yourself to the pickles, but leave a few for my midnight nosh, all right?" Without waiting for an answer, she exited the cabin, shutting the door soundly behind her.
Benny released a deep breath through pursed lips, shaking his head. "And I thought Moorhouse was a tough cookie."
Jonathan spared him a disparaging glare as he swept up the remnants of lunch. "That 'tough cookie' has three doctorates and has gathered more awards for scientific achievement than you have Pete Rose bubblegum cards."
"Nah. Nobody has that many awards."
"Would it actually kill you to give people even half the respect they deserve?"
"Only within earshot." Benny pushed off the mattress, stamping his bandaged foot on the ground. "Frostbite, gotta be," he muttered. "Okay, Jack, let's get to work."
"Work?" Jonathan's face dropped. "What do you mea what are you doing?"
His voice ended a full octave up as Benny blithely pulled open the black chest and began sifting through. "That's...that's trespassing," MacKensie told him agitatedly. "That's unethical, it's an unconscionable invasion of privacy..."
"Whoa!" Benny whistled appreciatively as he uncovered an elegant, well-polished hunting rifle. "Get a load of this, willya? I suppose she keeps this to defend her garlic pickles, huh?"
"She'd be a fool not to have some kind of protection all alone up here," MacKensie defended her nervously. "Benedek, please. Do me a favor and don't touch that. Don't touch any of it."
Blithely ignoring Jonathan's plea, Benny lifted the rifle free and expertly checked the bullet chamber. "This thing is top of the line, buds. You're right about one thing she's no fool. Don't worry, it's not loaded. Ah see? She keeps the ammo separate. Wait a minute, what's...?"
As Benedek bent to snag something in a far corner, MacKensie returned to the argument. "Benedek, she trusted us. Do you have any idea what it feels like to watch you betray that trust? It's bad enough that we haven't told her the truth about why we're here in the first place, but now"
"And you're wrong about that." Benny went back on his heels, staring at the two books he'd found in the bottom corner of the chest. "I think she already knows why we're here. Take a look."
Jonathan snatched the paperbacks from Benedek's outstretched hand and found himself looking at a very familiar name etched in large gaudy letters, in duplicate: Edgar Benedek.
"And you know something else?" Benny tapped one of the covers with his finger, startling Jonathan out of his speechless surprise. "These are the only two I've written so far that have full chapters on Bigfoot lore. Coincidence, eh, Jonny?"
"I don't understand," MacKensie said numbly when he could manage to speak at all. "Why didn't she say something?"
"She was waiting for us to hang ourselves, I guess. I dunno." Taking the books from Jonathan, Benny tossed them back into the chest. "Okay, what's next?"
"Isn't this enough?" Jonathan said hopefully.
"Aha." Shoving aside the plank cover, Benny peered down into the hole leading to the root cellar. "Whew! Something died down here. I don't suppose you'd...?"
He waved away the unspoken suggestion at Jonathan's stricken look. "She's got to have ah! I knew it." Stretching down, he snagged something, producing a flashlight. "One of those doctorates was in practicality, gotta been," he chuckled appreciatively. "Back in a flash, Jack."
MacKensie last, feeble protest died in a frustrated sigh as Benny disappeared down the hole. He closed his eyes, concentrating on fighting back an overwhelming sense of guilt. Abusing a host's hospitality was one thing, but this was a gross violation of everything he'd ever been taught. In the middle of a promising anxiety attack, Benny's muffled shout brought his eyes open. "Whoa, check it out!"
"What is it?" Jonathan said, feeling guiltier for even wanting to know. "What did you find?"
"She does have a kosher deli down here!"
With a long-suffering sigh, Jonathan sank down into the chair, supporting his aching head in his hand. A sudden clatter startled him; he jerked straight as Benny's head appeared suddenly.
"And you know what else she's got down here?" Benny said in a whisper of unholy delight. "At least five pounds of hot dogs and, get this a year's supply of marshmallows!"
Jonathan stared at him and felt anxiety rapidly lose ground to growing anger as he did. "Get out of there," he growled.
"What's your problem now?"
"I mean it this time. Out." He jumped up, snaring the back of Benny's collar. "I've had it with your junior detective routine," he snapped as he steadied the smaller man on his feet, then reached down to replace the plank. "We are guests here, Benedek. Your little ruse notwithstanding, she has been more than kind to us, and I will not stand here and watch you..."
"All right, all right, all right," Benny soothed, hands raised. "Give it a rest, okay? No harm done."
"I take the Fifth," he muttered, heading back for the chair again.
"Come on, Jack, admit it. You're really upset because I was right, aren't you?"
"Right?" MacKensie stared at him, beyond confusion. "Right about what?"
"That she's hiding something." Benny leaned in, making it impossible for MacKensie to escape without rising from the chair, which he was too tired to even consider. "It all adds up, Jack. She's got the right bait, she's got highly qualified reference material..." Ignoring MacKensie's snort of derision, he pressed on, "...and she's got the kind of rifle the NRA would probably dip in gold and enshrine."
"Now wait a minute," MacKensie protested. "That rifle is obviously only for self-protection."
"That's funny, I didn't see a note to that effect."
"She's a zoologist. An environmentalist. She would no more use that rifle for hunting than you would wear a double-breasted pin-striped suit to the beach."
"Or at all," Benny muttered to himself. "Okay, okay, forget that, I'll concede the point. But everything else points to"
"An overactive imagination," Jonathan overrode him firmly. "Yours. Look when she gets back, we'll solve this very amicably."
"We will?" Benny eyed him askance. "How?"
"We'll ask her."
Benedek pulled a face, but nodded agreeably at MacKensie's blazing glare. "Fine, we'll ask her. But don't be surprised if I don't happen to buy the answers, okay?"
Every attempt Benny made to reopen the conversation met with an angry glare and cold silence, so he settled for sorting through a pile of old magazines and newspapers. Jonathan located a stack of scientific journals and both were soon nose-deep in their respective choices.
"Hmph." Benny flipped the pages of a yellowed magazine. "Looks like LBJ isn't going for a second term. Imagine that."
"I need to wash."
"You..." Startled, Benedek dropped the magazine and squinted at the man seated on the floor near the window. "You what?"
"I'm itching," he complained, squirming to reach an awkward place on his back. "I'm sweaty, insects are eating me alive and I think I stumbled into a patch of hostile plant life." With an exasperated sigh, he tossed the journal aside and got to his feet. "I'm going to find that stream."
"Good luck, Crusoe," Benedek said, returning to his magazine. Two seconds later, he yelped as it ripped out of his hands.
"You're coming with me, Friday. On your feet."
"But I'm an injured man," he protested.
"Maybe, just maybe I can be persuaded to forget that your so-called injury is the reason I sweated away half my bodily fluids practically carrying you up here but only if you don't push your luck. Up."
"Okay, okay. If you don't want to go out in the big bad woods all alone, just say so."
"You're pushing," MacKensie growled.
"Yeah, you're right." With a long-suffering groan, Benny got to his feet. "We both know the real reason is that you don't trust me here alone."
"For once you're absolutely right." Jonathan shoved a towel into Benny's hands. "Carry this."
"Might as well make it two. I could do with a dab myself."
By the time they found the rushing stream, Benny was genuinely limping. The elastic bandage afforded little protection against sharp rocks and brush and with a exclamation of disgust, he dropped to the ground at the bank of the creek, sticking his foot into the running water. "Yeow!" he screeched, yanking back. "She wasn't kidding, this is cold!"
Eyeing the water with some trepidation, Jonathan unbuttoned his shirt. "Maybe I'll just settle for rinsing this out." As he shrugged free, his nose wrinkled sharply. "I can't stop there," he muttered. "Benedek let's go."
"Go? Make up your mind, willya? We just got here!"
"I need to find a still pool," he explained with ill patience. "I'm not taking a sponge bath in white water."
"Hey, this is as far as I go, buds." He stretched out on the grassy bank, hands folded beneath his head. "You make with the bath and I'll be right here when you get back."
Deciding that it wasn't worth wasting his breath to protest, Jonathan made a rude dismissive gesture and moved off.
Cracking open one eye, Benny watched him go. For one wild moment, he was tempted to jump up and head back to the cabin for some serious snooping unencumbered by Jonathan's overhoned ethics. And he had very little doubt that MacKensie would be unsurprised to find him gone upon his return. It wasn't even as if Jonathan had extracted any kind of binding promise from him. He'd merely expressed his disapproval, albeit loudly, on valid grounds and expected Benedek to respect it on those grounds, or at least respect the vague, tacit threat of physical violence flashing in the professor's usually calm eyes. Heading back to the cabin now would be a guarantee of more high-decibel disapproval. Benny pursed his lips in thought. He'd never lived his life for anyone's approval, except perhaps for his aggregate 'loyal public', and to him disapproval from any quarter was so much water off a duck's back. Well, not all the time he could remember getting his hackles up at a few insinuations that he wasn't quite as talented or erudite as he knew he was, but only from people who knew what they were talking about in the first place. People he knew, people he respected. And Jonathan? What did he know about investigative journalism? What did he know about human nature, period? The lies, the deceit, the guilt, all of which Benny had learned the hard way how to go at with hammer and chisel to get to the underlying truth. MacKensie had always vouchsafed the safe, polite, soft-soaping route and for the most part, Benny's method proved to be the most effective. Well...
He struggled with his conscience and gave up with a sigh. So it was a tie. For every time Benny struck gold with his modus operandi, Jonathan had scored a coup with simple grace and manners. The only difference was that Benny's methods sometimes nearly got them killed. Jonathan's methods had more than once netted them both feminine companionship for an evening, and on several memorable occasions, for an entire weekend.
And all this thinking wasn't getting him back to the cabin. His frown deepened to realize that the strong impulse was gone. He no longer had any interest in pulling Lydia's home apart looking for clues to the recent Bigfoot scare. Why? Because despite all his best efforts, he was really getting fond of the feisty old woman? Or because he finally had to admit to himself that Jonathan's disapproval, no matter how misplaced or naive it could be at times, was something he felt compelled to respect?
He shook his head, dismissing the thought. Better not to think about it at all. Enjoy the sun a bit, freshen up with a quick splash, and when Lydia returned, he could switch from his 007 persona back to Mike Wallace and pry the truth from her with dazzling rhetoric. With that comforting thought, he slid into a light, sun-warmed doze.
Jonathan scouted the stream, following its course up the mountain. A part of him threatened to swamp him with guilt, sure that Benny wasted no time heading back to the cabin, but he determinedly pressed on, assuring himself that he could at least get back in time to keep the man from doing major damage. And there was always the chance that Benedek would surprise him and actually stay put.
He'd gone at least four hundred yards and was on the verge of deciding to risk his towel in the foaming water when he spotted exactly what he was looking for a still pool formed by a large, nearly flat jutting rock formation. The fact that it was on the opposite bank gave him pause, but a careful probe revealed that the fast running water was shallow over the stream bed, which was formed by the root of the massive rocks. Removing his boots and socks, he gritted his teeth for the first step into the freezing water. Five careful steps got him across the narrow stream and he pulled up onto the rock, hissing at the pain in his partially numbed bare feet. A few minutes in the sun and a brisk massage brought relief, and he set to his task. Shrugging out of both shirt and undershirt, he dipped both into the pool in turn, rinsing thoroughly before spreading them out on the rock to dry. Now came the difficult part. He settled for dipping part of the towel into the water and letting his hands and the sun warm it for a few seconds before daubing himself. Tedious work, but it got the job done. The cool water not only washed away the sweat and the grit, but also eased the hot angry flush in his face, and he reveled in relief.
A sharp crack in the brush nearby brought his head up as he gingerly splashed water on his face. Eyes blurred by dripping water, he blinked and squinted, expecting to see that Benny had followed him, or an errant hiker had stumbled off the trail and onto the site of him impromptu bath. But the sound was behind him.
The bank of the stream faded into thick forest in a matter of just a few feet. Sunlight illuminated only the first layer, with half-lit darkness beyond. It was from that gloomy place that the sound had come.
Jonathan shook free of the thought that something lurked in the suddenly ominous darkness. A squirrel, or a possum, that's all it was. Innocuous. Harmless. He forced himself back to his task, drying his face and neck before reaching back for his socks.
Another crack. This time his searching eyes picked out movement and he straightened, ready to run. Only there was no place to run. He was blocked on three sides by water, and the only escape route brought him within yards of that furtive shape in the darkness. Swallowing, he slowly rose to his feet.
Movement again, just the vaguest outline of something lurking beyond the trees. Too large for a squirrel or possum. He caught a glimpse of light refracted through retinas, appearing as two glowing eyes in the darkness. Too far off the ground for any four-legged creature. That left only three possibilities: a bear, a lost hiker or...
"Benedek?" His planned shout disintegrated into a dry, undignified squeak. "This isn't funny, Benedek."
The eyes vanished, tentatively reappearing. His heart sank. Even if Benny had braved the white water and risked crossing over farther downstream, he still would have given up the joke by now, Jonathan was sure of that. There was no reason for a bewildered naturalist to hide and he was fairly certain that a bear wouldn't be playing peekaboo behind a tree. The logical, sane part of his mind flatly refused to entertain a fourth, more bizarre, possibility, and so he stubbornly clung to the safest choice. "Benedek? Come on, the joke's over."
His mouth opened to voice a less amicable sentiment, and hung there as the light breeze momentarily parted the concealing branches and sent brief, sharp light into the gloom, just enough to reveal the form peering out at him from behind a tree.
Reflex took over, resolving in a shrill cry that surprised even him. His muscles retracted, and in the same moment he realized that he couldn't control a violent start, his feet slid out from under him. His yelp of surprise segued into a shout of alarm as he plummeted into the chilly water.
Every nerve-ending in his body flash-froze, and the keening pain drove a scream out of his mouth. Water rushed in, choking him; panic seized him to realize that he was completely numb; no way to control his limbs or his muscles, not even to close his mouth, no way to keep from sinking like a rock.
Panic finally gave him enough adrenalin to thrash with his arms, and his head bobbed free of the water. Something moved in his blurred, tilted vision, someone running away, arms waving. No, wait! Come back! Help me! Help...!
He sank again, water rushing back into his nose and mouth. His arms and legs felt like two blocks of solid ice, weighing him down. Work! he prayed fervently, desperately trying to get his limbs to move. Come on, work!
He tried to thrash again, but managed to break the surface only long enough to gasp in another breath with another lungful of water. Again; then again. Each time he managed less air and more water. This isn't working. Oh, god, this isn't working!
Something tightened around his head, and for a panic-filled moment he thought he was about to explode from asphyxiation. But the hold slipped to his neck and pulled up. His head broke the surface of the water and he gasped for air, then convulsed in a wet coughing fit. The grip held him steady, another hand like iron around his upper arm. When the spasm eased enough for his eyes to clear, Jonathan looked up, prepared to profusely thank his savior.
"Benedek...thank god. I'm going to kill you. You...you..."
His voice trailed off as he finally focused on the face of his rescuer a face that was by no stretch of the imagination that of Edgar Benedek.
Benny stretched, luxuriating in the warmth of the sun, and the serenity of forest surrounding him. Here it was easy to believe, just for a moment, that there was no other human for miles around. This was absolute peace. He reveled in the sounds of nature: the quick scuttle of a tiny creature in the dry leaves, the soft trill of birdsong, the shrill cry of an agitated anthro prof...
His eyes snapped open. "Jonny?" Sitting bolt upright, he went still, listening. "Jonathan?" No answer; no repeat of the distressed cry. Springing to his feet, he wavered, trying to remember the direction of the shout or at least which way MacKensie had been heading. Once decided, he set off at a fast trot which slowed considerably when the choice became laceration by malevolent plant life or a tumble into the rushing stream.
Fighting through, he kept calling, panic growing with every minute that went by without an answering shout. He briefly entertained the thought that there existed some indigenous species of bird that could imitate the startled shout of a British-accented male caucasian tenor, but that didn't lessen his pace upstream, nor was it any consolation when he finally stumbled out into a clearing and immediately spotted a rumpled pile of familiar-looking clothing and a towel atop a large, flat rock. And no sign of MacKensie.
"Jonathan?" He looked around, hands spread helplessly. "Yo, Jonny!"
No answer. Nothing. Running his hand over his face, he took a moment to consider. Clues, that's what he needed. He forded the stream gingerly, grimacing at the net result of one soggy boot and one water-logged Ace bandage. A quick inspection of the clothing confirmed that both shirts had recently been on the back of Jonathan MacKensie, and both were thoroughly damp. ;You took a nature walk while your clothes were in the dryer?; His nose wrinkled in response to a thought that felt totally wrong, especially given the fact that two dry, unwashed socks lay discarded next to Jonathan's water-splashed hiking boots.
"Jonny! Come on, this is no time for hide and seek! Where the hell are y?"
Mouth opened for the uncompleted word, he stared at the trampled ground at his feet. Where the boiling stream sent sprays of water far afield, the earth for a good four yards was completely soaked, leaving marked impressions. Most were a jumble, but something looked to have been dragged in a fairly straight line from the stream off into the woods. And just by his feet was a clean footprint, so fresh that water still seeped up to fill the impression. Not Jonathan's bootprint; not even MacKensie's size, not by at least eight inches. The foot which had left this evidence of its passing was bare and at least a size 25.
"Holy cow." He backed away three steps before he got the panic reflex under control. But panic surged back when he reassessed the evidence in light of his new, growing suspicion. "Holy cow. It's real. It's real and it's..."
He stared into the forest, mouth falling open again. "Holy cow."
Reason returned a full five seconds later with the sharp thought that he'd better think of something more constructive to do besides stare and utter imprecations to a sacred bovine. Impulse took him four steps towards the woods before common sense skidded him to an abrupt halt. Whirling, he stared again at the massive footprint, and then down at his own feet, one booted, one bare and bandaged. A rough mental calculation gave the other guy a full two-three foot height advantage over him, not to mention enough brute strength to haul off a rather sturdily built college professor.
He needed an equalizer. He also needed his other hiking boot if he planned to go crashing through the woods searching for Bigfoot's lair. And both essential items were back at Lydia's cabin.
The decision took him at a fast limp along the stream bank stream and down the beaten path leading to the small cabin. Bursting in, Benedek froze to see Lydia standing by the bed, folding the discarded afghan. Startled by his abrupt entrance, she glanced up then looked again, eyes traveling down to his foot and the sodden, torn bandage. "A miracle," she harrumphed.
"No time," Benny panted as he threw himself into the chair and yanked at the remains of the bandage. "I need your rifle."
"My" Her head swiveled from him to the trunk and back again, eyes narrowing. "What for?"
"It's got Jonathan. Where the hell's my boot? Where...aha!"
"What's got who?" she demanded, bending over to follow his hands-and-knees search under the table.
"Bigfoot!" His head popped up, eyes bright with anxiety and excitement. "It's got Jonathan, I'm telling you! How much ammo you got? This one's going to be a tough customer, you should see the size of its spoor."
"Spoor? Hold on here, what did you actually see?"
He fumbled on the boot, ending up on his back with his foot in the air as he yanked the laces tight. "Enough. Believe me, I saw enough. Now..." Rolling to his knees, he pushed up and took a deep breath to control his voice and his panic. "You head down the mountain and bring back help, and I'm talking heavy artillery, okay? Air support wouldn't be a bad idea, either. I'll just..."
She beat him to the trunk, sitting down on the lid. "What on earth are you babbling about?"
"Look, I don't have time for this," he pleaded. "My buddy's in trouble. You gotta help me out here."
"Tell me a coherent story first," she commanded and her determined expression left no doubt that nothing less that acceding to her demands or a heavy-duty lever would budge her.
He sketched out events for her, watching her face go from skeptical to puzzled and from there, suddenly blank. At the end of his narrative, he gulped air into his overtaxed lungs as she considered the far wall and then him with a narrow stare. "But you didn't actually see what happened?"
"Lady, I saw a footprint the size of a Buick, okay? That's enough for me and we are wasting time here! Haven't you been listening to me? It's got my friend."
"Don't get your britches in an uproar," she snapped. "They won't hurt him."
"They wo " He choked, coughed and blinked. "Who won't do what?"
Hefting off the chest, she moved past him to retrieve her hat from the table. "I'll explain as we go. All you have to do is...get away from there!"
Benny jumped, and the trunk lid slammed shut with an incriminating bang.
"That gun is for self-defense," she grumbled, glaring back at him.
"What do y ?"
"And only from two-legged beer-drinking party animals. And you, if I find out you two cooked this up to flim-flam me again."
Benny met her challenging glare without flinching, and her stern visage softened, as though she'd found proof of his veracity behind his frantic eyes. "We won't need it. Trust me. Your friend is perfectly safe. Come on, I'll take you to him. But...." Her raised finger stopped him mid-step and mid-question. "You follow me, you understand? You don't do anything I don't tell you to do, and you don't say anything I don't tell you to say."
"All I want to know is what the hell is going on?"
"Starting now." Her finger hovered inches from his nose until he sighed and nodded. She smiled suddenly, both amused and rueful. "Whether I like it or not, I guess you're about to get what you came here for. Come on let's go find your friend."
He woke up coughing, and for a time it seemed that his body's attempt to rid itself of ingested water would never ease off. He tried to rise, but spasms would siphon strength from his arms and he'd sprawl back, knocking water back into his lungs and setting off yet another fit of wet hacking. In a fog of pain and frustration, he finally struggled to his hands and knees, but before he could establish balance, his elbows began to wobble dangerously.
His arms folded under, but this time he didn't fall back. Something braced him, a warm, supportive grip on either of his upper arms, holding him steady until the spasms eased, until he could take a full breath with only minimal pain. Weak with exertion and relief, he attempted to collapse to the ground, but the hold on his shoulders pulled back gently, and he went with it, feeling himself settled carefully into a seated position, his bare back scraping against something damp and rough. For a time, it was all he could do to breathe, so he waited, eyes closed, for the roar in his head and ears to subside and the rest of his abused senses to recover.
Smell returned first, bringing him a strange amalgam of impressions. Wood smoke mingled with wet, rotting plant life, and a musty odor he couldn't quite place. He forced open his eyes, and wiped vaguely at them. At first he could see nothing more than a blurred orange flicker set somewhere off to his near left; everything else was in total darkness. But with time and effort, his vision began to resolve. The orange glow proved to be a small campfire and its thin light brought detail to the gloom.
He sketched the outline of what he could see with his clearing eyes and came to the confusing conclusion that he was in a small enclosed area, probably a cave. His attempt to connect his last memory to his current circumstances was interrupted by movement in the near shadows to his right.
The pale firelight showed him only a vaguely human figure, crouched, moving tentatively towards him by stretching out until it was kneeling barely three feet away from him, still masked by the gloom. The memory of his tumble into the water came back then, and Jonathan stopped breathing, watching in growing fear as an arm raised, reaching out for him.
He started violently, gasping as the cave wall gouged his back. The figure drew back into a huddle, uttering a tiny whimper.
Curiosity pushing anxiety out of its path, he peered into the darkness. His hand lifted, an unconscious attempt to pull the gloom aside, but the shrouded figure before him reacted to it, first drawing away, then coming forward again like a timid cat with an adventurous soul.
Panic almost pulled his hand back, but he stepped hard on the reflex, extending his fingers in tacit welcome. It responded, reaching out a hand and five human-looking fingers to touch his.
He stared in amazement at the face before him, fully unveiled by the pale yellow firelight. A small, frail face illuminated by shining black eyes, a proud straight nose and full, sharply defined mouth, human in every respect save for the thick, matted brown hair covering every inch of its body.
A sharp growl from the deeper shadows startled a gasp out of him, but elicited only a pouting whimper from his new friend. As his heart pounded frantically, Jonathan remembered that while this small creature was the reason he'd slipped on the rock in the first place, something a lot stronger and a lot uglier had pulled him from the water. Another growl from the other side of the cave silenced his companion, but only for a moment. It scuttled back, returning a moment later with something clutched in its fur-covered hand, which it offered to Jonathan. Taking it, he felt the familiar contour of a plastic bag, and in growing bewilderment probed the contents, pulled out one of the soft globs and sniffed. Beyond confusion, he bit into the all-too familiar sweet nothingness of a marshmallow.
A pair of longing black eyes pulled him out of a fog of confusion, and he offered the bag back. With a happy cry, it dug in hungrily, downing a handful.
The deep growl from beyond repeated, but this time was more dismissive, as though used to being ignored. Then another sound, from another direction: an indignant squeak that his companion answered with a petulant whine. A quick scuttling brought forth another, much smaller, figure, which paused to stare shyly at him before gaining its companion's side, clawing the plastic bag out of its hands.
As the two fought playfully for possession, Jonathan stared at them, his scientific mind finally kicking in. The small one seemed to be a prepubescent male, while the other was a mature female, but with a coltish edge that led him to re-evaluate her as an older adolescent. His first impression of them as completely hair-covered wasn't entirely correct. The neck and lower torso were bare, as were the female's breasts. Their features were completely human-like, down to the perfectly formed fingers and toes. In fact, were it not for their incredible hirsuteness, they would have been two children horsing around....
He blinked, reflexively touching his nose. Not a twinge, not even the slightest tickle. For as long as he could remember, he'd suffered violent allergies to most species of animals, particularly furred mammals. But he'd not so much as sneezed since waking up in this place, which was obviously their lair. And to his mind, that could only mean one thing.
"You're human." His whispered incredulity caused the children to pause and stare at him in blank interest before resuming their tussle. "You must be. You..."
Something moving in the deep shadows distracted him, and stopped the mock fight in progress. Into the pale circle of firelight stepped another figure, a mature male whose hair-covered face was lined and worn, whose dark eyes were both weary and sad as he studied Jonathan and then glanced over at the children, scattering them with a low grunt and sharp motion of his head. Again his head swiveled, regarding Jonathan with mild interest along with a marked degree of suspicion. Jonathan swallowed in a dry throat, uncertain whether he should speak or remain silent, or even whether he would be allowed to live another hour. But the memory of his own recent brush with death gave him the answer to that along with his voice.
"Thank you," he said suddenly, startling the man-creature before him. "You saved my life. Thank you."
For a time, the man before him stared, immobile, leaving MacKensie unsure whether he'd been understood or misunderstood. Then the large, hairy head bobbed up and down once. "Y'welcome," it muttered, shuffling back into the darkness.
"You're not the first yahoos to come up this mountain looking for Bigfoot," Lydia said, treading the path at a sensible pace that threatened to drive Benedek mad with frustration. "I sure as hell wish you could be the last, but...."
"Looking's one thing, finding's another." He sprinted ahead to block her path. "You found it, didn't you? You've been sitting on top of this for how long? A year, two years more? It's just been you and your little secret here, all nice and cozy, hasn't it?"
"Don't push it," she growled, eyeing him darkly.
"Push it?" he spluttered. "Lady, thanks to you, something seriously large and furry is planning to have an English for breakfast. You better believe I'll not only push, I'll shove if I have to, so you better start doing some talking right now."
"Now you listen to me," she said in a soft voice that struck him dumb with irrational awe. "I already told you once, your friend is in no danger not unless I find out that this is one of your little half-baked bait-and-flush scams. What I have or haven't been sitting on is none of your damned business, you hear me?" She leaned closer, and he stopped breathing to see a true threat burning in her eyes. "All I have to do is tell the sheriff in town that I caught you looting my place and my guess is your fingerprints are in a few places they really oughtn't be. Try to keep that in mind, okay?"
He puffed up for an indignant protest, but her cold stare stole his voice, leaving him only able to nod.
"Good." With a terse nod, she pushed past him, resuming her determined pace. "Of course, I'd only shoot you if I really had to, like if you didn't keep your fool mouth shut like I told you to."
He sprinted to catch up, torn between calling her bluff or respecting the real anger behind her outwardly calm manner. "You knew who I was all along," he said. "Why didn't you say something?"
"Why should I?" she shrugged without looking at him.
"Why do you have my books, anyway? You've got the real thing here, why do you need speculation?"
"Speculation? You mean that load of hooey you pass off as verified sightings and eyewitness testimony?" She snorted, shaking her head. "Two reasons. One, you actually did a little bit of research in that first book of yours, and, believe it or not, your second book has the most recent bibliography on Bigfoot and Sasquatch legends and so-called documented sightings. I use it for reference."
He blinked in surprise. "You're saying that you use America's Favorite Monsters as a resource tool? Can I get you to write a blurb for my next book?"
"Only under a pseudonym," she growled, not unkindly.
"What's the second reason?"
She glanced at him, slightly uneasy. "I, uh...I like a little light reading now and then."
"And Danielle Steel doesn't do it for you, got it," he crowed, his glow lasting only a moment before reality crashed back. "So this thing is real, isn't it?" he said hollowly. "Bigfoot is real?"
She stopped, staring down at the ground with lips pursed tight. "Yes and no," she decided with a sigh. "There's a little bit of truth wrapped up with a whole lot of fear and overwrought imagination. Like the stuff you write." She glanced up to catch his fading grin. "When the human animal doesn't understand, it becomes afraid. And it will exaggerate the cause of its fear to make itself appear less weak, less cowardly. With imagination, what was once merely strange or puzzling becomes dark and threatening. A monster of the mind, if not in fact."
He nodded his understanding, his grin twisting ruefully. "And there are those of us who exploit that fear for gain, is that what you're saying?"
"I don't know about that, but...I've always gotten a feeling that you did it because you enjoyed watching fools jump when you said 'boo'."
This time both their smiles were genuine. "At least you try," she said after a moment, giving him a searching look. "You do try to understand."
"That's because I'm not afraid of anything," he chuckled, the lie slapping him hard the moment the words were out of his mouth. He let the worry simmering in the bottom of his stomach reflect on his face as he looked around the heavily wooded landscape. "You're absolutely sure he's all right?"
He stared. "Say what?"
"Go ahead. Shout. He'll hear you."
At her sharp gesture, he gave up his questions and drew in a lungful of air. "Jonathan! Jonny! Yo!"
Only the natural sounds of the forest greeted his call. Benedek turned to Lydia with a inquiring look, but she only motioned for him to try again. "Jonathan! Come on, buds, I brought the infantry. Give a yodel, willya?"
This time a faint answering call drifted down from a point halfway up a steep rise to their left. "Benedek?"
Benny grabbed Lydia's arm. "That's him. That's him. Where the hell is he?"
With a strangely dispirited sigh, she pointed up and over. Barely had Benny spotted the faint path snaking up the incline than he was off, scrambling up past boulders and hanging vines. "Jonathan?"
A heavy veil of vines and dead brush moved, and MacKensie's head poked out just as Benny made it to the small plateau. "You okay?" Benedek gasped, tripping heavily as he tried to take the last few feet in one jump. Springing forward, Jonathan caught his arm and pulled the man upright as he cautioned, "Watch it, watch it, that's a twenty-foot drop, you fool."
"Fool?" Steadied by Jonathan's grip, Benny used his free hand to land a solid punch on his friend's arm. "Who the hell are you calling a fool? I was worried half sick about you, you jerk!"
"You were?" Jonathan said, arching an amused brow.
"Yeah, well...never again, believe me," he huffed, regaining his arm and his dignity.
"I don't suppose you brought my shirt or my shoes?" Jonathan asked hopefully.
"What do I look like, valet service? Damn you, anyway! I was...I was...."
MacKensie smiled as Benny gave up with a weary sigh and a shake of his head. "You were worried. I heard."
"Dr. MacKensie?" Lydia's precise voice turned them both towards her where she'd come up behind Benny. "You're well, I trust?"
"I'm fine, thank you." He paused, glancing back towards the half-veiled cave entrance. "It was my fault entirely, Dr. Schnetzer."
"Was it now?" she said stiffly.
"I slipped and fell, that's all. You really mustn't be angry with her...."
"Mustn't I?" Her indignation faltered as she looked from the cave back to Jonathan. "I'm relieved you weren't injured, but I'm afraid that for what you do understand, you do not understand a great deal more. Is she in there, or is she hiding from me?"
Standing aside, Jonathan gestured for her to enter.
Benedek snagged his friend's arm as he turned to follow Lydia into the cave. "Who the hell is 'she'?"
Jonathan motioned for him to be patient. With a sigh, Benny nodded, muttering as he entered the cool darkness, "Even in the wilderness...sheesh."
The cave mouth became a short tunnel opening to the left onto a largish cavern. Lydia stood by the campfire, arms crossed as she glowered at someone cowering in the near shadows. "Carrie I said, come here," she commanded and the crouching figure crept forward, shoulders slumped, clasped hands pressed against her chin.
Benny choked as the firelight revealed details of the young girl's hirsute condition. "Holy!"
A sharp gesture from Jonathan cut off his excited cry. Lydia leaned forward, speaking in low, stern tones. The girl's head drooped even farther, every inch the chastised child.
"Come on, Jonny, give me the capsule news brief here. What in the name of Marlin Perkins is going on around here?"
"You probably know more than I do."
"Like hell. The Statue of Liberty is a yenta compared to her. What happened at the stream?"
"I told you I slipped and fell." To Benny's accusing silence, he amended, "After I, uh...caught a glimpse of her spying on me from the trees."
"Knocked you right off your feet, huh?" Benny muttered.
"In a word, yes. Her father pulled me out."
"Her father?" Benny glanced around in a panic. "How many of them are there?"
"Benedek, don't have a blood pressure attack in my ear, all right? There's a young boy as well as his sister and their father and they're human."
"You heard me. Human. Homo sapiens."
"You've reached this startling conclusion after a battery of exhaustive tests, right?"
MacKensie placed his forefinger on his nose. "The only test I need. If they were animals, my sinuses would feel like six tons of wet concrete, you know that."
"Don't I," Benedek agreed with a short laugh. "But I don't get it. They look...I mean, they...."
"It's a congenital condition." Lydia's voice startled them both. Carrie stood, head down, where the woman had left her to join them. "And if you don't mind, I'd rather not get into the medical mumbo-jumbo. Suffice to say that Dr. MacKensie is right these people are as human as you." She glanced at Benedek. "Perhaps more so. I might as well introduce you. Carrie?"
The girl started and shied back, but then responded to Lydia's impatient gesture. She came forward, giving them a shy smile behind the hands she loosely cupped to her chin.
"My best guess is that she's fourteen or fifteen," Lydia said, putting her hands on the girl's shoulders protectively. "Carrie, this is Benny."
The girl stared at him, then hastily stuck out her hand as if only just remembering her cue. With his best smile, Benny shook hands with her, giving Jonathan a confused look over his shoulder.
"And this is Jonathan. You've, ah...already met."
The girl's smile blossomed as she offered her hand without hesitation. MacKensie favored Benny with a black look in return for the nudge his friend gave him.
"What's the little boy's name?" Jonathan wanted to know.
"I call him C.R. short for Christopher Robin. I don't really know what their real names are neither they nor Lewis will tell me."
"Lewis?" Jonathan echoed, approximating height with his left hand.
She nodded, looking off into the shadows. "He's either being very shy or sulking. I'll check on him before we leave. C.R.? Carrie, where's your brother?"
"Back," she whispered in a thin, little-girl voice, pointing into the shadows. A small figure was already inching out, responding to the sound of his name. In one of his small hands he clutched the nearly depleted marshmallow bag. Seeing it, Lydia clucked in disgust. "Didn't I tell you not to touch those until I came back?"
Shame-faced, the boy offered the bag to her, which she took with a heavy sigh. "There you have it. That's the whole problem, in a nutshell. They absolutely refuse to mind." She regarded Carrie with a look of anger mixed with exasperation, and the girl averted her face. "I told her to stay in the cave today. I told her to stay away from the cabin and to stay away from you. She must have left right behind me." Another moment passed in a sigh. "She just doesn't understand."
"Neither do I," Jonathan said quietly. "You've just described a normal, albeit rebellious teenage girl. This is no kind of life for her, no wonder she's"
"Listen, do me a favor," Lydia cut in irritably. "Don't tell me things I already know, okay? And while you're at it, shut your face while I explain some things you don't know."
Jonathan accepted her chide with silence, then a stiff nod. "I'm listening."
"So am I," Benny offered with a raised eyebrow.
"Not here," she decided wearily, her arm again slipping affectionately around Carrie's shoulders, which brought a wan smile from the young girl. "Give me a minute to check on Lewis, and we'll head back to the cabin and talk there." She inclined her head towards Carrie. "And whatever you do, don't encourage her, all right?"
"What does that mean?" Benny wondered as Lydia disappeared into a deeper part of the cave. The answer came the next moment when Carrie, first checking to see that Lydia was out of sight, moved to Jonathan and boldly reached up to pull his hair.
With a voiceless cry and a strained smile, MacKensie freed himself, trapping her wrist to foil another attempt. Her other hand went to his nose and traveled as far as his upper torso before he could stop her.
"Hey, Jack, I think she likes you," Benny chuckled.
"Not funny, Benedek," MacKensie growled, holding tight as the girl, pouting, tried to wrest her hands free.
Still laughing, Benny looked down at a tug on his pants leg. The little boy was staring up at him, utterly fascinated. "I got it, Jack! They think we look funny without hair."
Jonathan hissed, barely rescuing his pride and his trouser zipper from Carrie's probing touch. "I don't think that's the half of it," he said between gritted teeth. "Good Lord, it was bad enough when her father was here watching over her, but this...!"
Lydia's sharp voice jerked the young girl away with a gasp. Instead of venting the promised anger, Lydia sighed heavily, cradling her forehead in one hand. "Impossible," she muttered under her breath. "Absolutely impossible."
"Lydia, I think we need to talk," Jonathan said.
She nodded, suddenly looking old and worn in the pale firelight. "For once, you're right. I do need to talk."
"It's a lot of educated guesswork, mind you. What little I could get out of Lewis fits the picture. Thank you." She accepted the teacup from Jonathan, who then returned to the small fireplace, setting the kettle aside and retrieving the articles of clothing he'd insisted they rescue before returning to Lydia's cabin. As he pulled on his undershirt, she continued, "Do you remember a Sasquatch legend about an Indian brave accidentally killing the sacred white wolf?"
"Chapter Five, page 94, paragraph two, right?" Benny, seated on the edge of the makeshift bed, preened.
"I'll take your word for it. For his transgression, he and his family were banished from the tribe, and his children were cursed to be born wolves."
"Wait a minute you're saying that those three people in the cave are descendants of an old Indian curse?" Benny asked, frowning.
"A genetic curse. I think it's possible that the legend arose after the exile after the birth of a deformed child."
"I see," Jonathan murmured as he rebuttoned his shirt. "The family of the child became pariahs, scorned by their own people they probably went into hiding for their own safety..."
"And propagated," Lydia nodded. "And in doing, passed on the defective gene. I don't know how long this clan has been hiding here; at least a century, probably two. I found evidence that a much larger family group existed, although they never numbered more than two dozen at any one time. When I first came here, Carrie and C.R.'s mother was still alive, but she died shortly after. I don't think you'll be surprised to know that she and Lewis were also brother and sister."
"Which is all the more reason that they can't continue living like this," Jonathan told her earnestly. "It's a tragedy that their ancestors were forced into this existence, but there is no reason..."
"Listen to me," Lydia interjected firmly. "I've gone over all this, in my head, a thousand times. I've got eyes, I can see that there's no future here for them. I'm not even talking about morality, I'm talking about inbreeding, about passing on defective genes and other congenital weaknesses, the very thing that killed their mother and their siblings and..."
She broke off, shaking her head sadly. After a moment, MacKensie finished the thought. "...and is killing them."
To her sharp, questioning glance, he nodded. "That's not a guess. I got a good look at C.R.'s eyes just before you two found me. It's his liver, isn't it?" When she nodded, he pressed, "How much longer do you think he can last without medical treatment?"
"That's not a fair question."
"Look, you've said that you see the problem, why can't you see the answer?"
"What do you want me to do, tuck one under either arm and haul them off to the hospital? In case you didn't notice, I'm not their mother, and they aren't my children. They are not my responsibility, no matter how much I wish it were otherwise. Lewis is their father. He is also a human being. I have to respect his wishes."
"Even if it kills the children?"
"Yes," she said firmly, in pain. "Look, I'm telling you, you don't understand. They've learned to fear and distrust their own kind, and with very good reason, I might add."
"But they've learned to trust you," Benny interjected.
"That's because they're also sensible and highly intelligent," she said with a thin smile. "And also because well, I came along at the point when they realized that the mother was dying. The children seemed to latch on to me, although it took Lewis a lot longer to come around. I was like you then. I was incensed that humans were forced to live like animals, I was determined to get them back to civilization. But then I realized that no one was forcing them to stay there. They chose it. They chose to live in peace and seclusion rather than a life of humiliation and ridicule among their 'own kind'. Only now..."
She paused, lost for a moment in bitter reflection. "They're just children," she murmured in a voice they had to lean forward to catch. "They don't understand. And when I try to explain it to them I just seem to make it worse."
"What do you mean?" Benny ventured, sympathetic to the woman's obvious distress.
She gestured vaguely towards the ceiling. "They've glimpsed miracles. Hairless creatures like themselves, living in metal boxes on wheels or in little soft caves held up by sticks. Even before I found them skulking behind this cabin, they were sneaking into campsites at night and foraging." Some of the weariness in her face gave way to faint bemusement. "I knew you two were trouble the minute I set eyes on you. There are three things Carrie simply cannot resist. Hot dogs, marshmallows and handsome young men."
"Whoa, we couldn't miss!" Benny chuckled, straightening his collar smugly.
"And you didn't. I blundered into your little makeshift trap while I was chasing her away." She eyed Benny askance. "I never got a chance to thank you for giving me the perfect opportunity to keep you out of mischief for a while, at least."
Benny smiled weakly, rubbing his leg in self-conscious guilt. "So what's with the junk food stash downstairs? Bribes or prizes for good behavior?"
"Both and neither," she said, the light fading from her eyes again. "At first I thought I was keeping them out of sight and out of trouble, but all I seem to be doing is encouraging them, fueling their restlessness."
"You mean daddy can't control them?" Benny wanted to know. "From the size of that footprint, I'd have thought the guy could intimidate a small country."
"He's never quite recovered from his mate's death." Lydia pushed the teacup aside with a sigh. "He has Carrie and C.R., of course, but they are just..." She shrugged helplessly. "Just children. For all intents and purposes, he's alone now. I've tried to coax him off this mountain, but this is his entire life. He'll never leave, not voluntarily. And if anyone tried to force him to leave, they might as well just put a bullet in his head it would be kinder."
Jonathan made a small sound of frustration, shaking his head. "But the children," he pleaded softly.
"I know. I know."
The pain in her quiet words filled the silence as she lowered her head into one hand. "I want to help them," she said tiredly. "And I can't. All I can do is try to protect them as best I can and pray for them."
"There has to be something else we can do for them," Jonathan murmured, remembering C.R.'s trusting eyes, the telltale shroud of yellow that had betrayed the child's deteriorating physical condition. A small sound brought him out of his bleak reverie and to his surprise, found himself the sole object of Lydia's drawn, fearful stare. "What do you mean by that?" she demanded tautly.
"Whoa." Benny laid a hand against Jonathan's arm. "Hold on, the lady's just upgraded to Defcon One."
"I asked you what you meant by that," she grated, eyes flashing with genuine rage.
Unable to fathom the reason for her sudden, dangerous flare, Jonathan looked to Benny for help. His friend nodded warily, gesturing for him to take it slowly. "I only meant that...that there must be something more we could do, something"
"Something I haven't thought of?" she demanded coldly. "Something that wiser heads like you can see that I can't? Just who the hell do you think you are, anyway?"
Realizing only then that he had, in all innocence, committed a major blunder, Jonathan backpedaled as gracefully as he dared. "Dr. Schnetzer, I apologize. I...I didn't mean to sound quite so...so..."
"Patronizing? Supercilious? Condescending?" To his relief, the angry red flush drained from her face as she continued to glare at him. "Well...I suppose I didn't mean to sound so...so..."
"Frightened?" Benny smiled thinly as two pairs of eyes turned questioningly on him. "That's it, isn't it? You're scared to death of us, aren't you?"
Prepared to chide his cohort for such a brash statement, Jonathan blinked in surprise to see Lydia avert her face as she reluctantly shrugged and nodded. Benny gave MacKensie a knowing look. "Look at her, Jack. A woman with a deep, dark secret. She's found the truth behind Bigfoot. Not only that, she literally holds three lives in her hands because of it. Now look at us. The hot-shot paranormal investigators. Better yet the anthropologist and the 'bloid reporter. And we've got her secret now, don't we?"
And Jonathan did see the fear in her eyes as she chanced a glance back at them, and something turned a somersault in his stomach. "You think..."
"Wouldn't you?" she muttered when he couldn't bring himself to finish. "My question is would you?"
"I" He stared at Benedek's closed expression, realizing he could only speak for himself, and even then only after considerable thought.
But every thought scattered to the winds in the next moment, blown to bits by the sudden clamor outside the cabin door. Two childish voices wailing Lydia's name drained the color from the woman's face as she sprang up, bolting for the door.
"C.R.? Car?" As she yanked the door open, a small hairy form jumped into her arms, clinging and crying. Carrie, gibbering excitedly, danced and waved her arms until Lydia, disentangling herself from the boy, calmed her with quiet words and a firm hand on her shoulder. Benny and Jonathan edged closer, but could hear nothing of the exchange save Carrie's tear-filled sniffles and Lydia's questioning murmur.
"Something's happened to their father," Lydia announced, voice cracking with anxiety as she straightened, lifting C.R. in her arms. "I have to go. No," she said hastily as Jonathan stepped forward with a raised hand. "You'd both better stay here. I don't think it's serious. At least...you'd better stay here."
"Lydia?" Jonathan's plea went unanswered as she shooed the children out and closed the door firmly after her.
Benny pressed his lips together, torn. "You think we should, ah...?"
"No," MacKensie decided after an uncertain moment. "This isn't any of our business."
It took a moment for Benny to understand, but when he did, he sighed for the sheer frustration of being forced to agree. "So," he sighed, moving back to the bed and retrieving his discarded magazine. "With LBJ out of the picture, how do you think the next election's going to go, eh?"
The sunlight streaming through the front windows had deepened to a burnished orange, making reading difficult if not impossible without the help of a kerosene lamp, one of which was within easy reach. Benny didn't bother. Although a magazine lay open against his knees, he hadn't read a word in over an hour, merely content to contemplate the universe as a whole, the situation in general and a bag of stale marshmallows in specific. Occasionally he snuck a look over at his companion. Some time ago, Jonathan had pulled the chair over to one of the windows and since then had sat staring out. In profile, Benny saw MacKensie's expression go through subtle changes: sudden frowns, mild grimaces and, more than once, a thin, almost soulless smile.
That last bothered him, because he knew it well. Not that he'd ever seen Jonathan MacKensie smile in that strange way before, but that Benny had caught it on his own face and those of conscience-less colleagues too many times in the past. It spoke of inner thoughts in turmoil, cold and selfish, of the prospect of great rewards to be gained only after great sacrifice and always someone else's sacrifice.
Benny chewed thoughtfully on another marshmallow, debating whether he should probe or keep his nose clean. But evidently the struggle going on inside MacKensie grew violent enough to break his reflective silence, saving Benny the trouble.
"She's really afraid of us, isn't she?"
"Wouldn't you be?" He tossed the magazine aside and swallowed. "Face it, pal she can bully and bluster till her blood pressure shoots off the scale, but unless she decides to apply a high-caliber dose of persuasion from her little toy over there, there's not a damned thing she can do to stop us from coming down off this mountain and announcing to the world at large that Bigfoot is real." He sat up, leisurely dusting his hands free of white sugary powder. "Hairy Horrors Haunt Hills! Legends Come To Life! Story and full color spread starting page 3!"
Wincing, Jonathan shook his head, but remained silent. His suspicions confirmed, Benny nodded to himself. "It would just about make your career too, wouldn't it?"
MacKensie started slightly, averting his face towards the window.
"Don't kid a kidder pal," Benny laughed lowly. "You've been staring out that window for the better part of an hour, writing a 'scholarly treatise' in your head, right?"
"And I'm sick about it," Jonathan admitted reluctantly. "To even think about capitalizing on someone else's misfortune for my own gain" He glanced at Benny askance and looked away again. "But I just...I just can't ignore it. They're remnants of an indigenous culture, relatively unspoiled by the advance of civilization and technology. To be able to explore their lives, how they and their ancestors managed to survive this is the anthropological find of the century, this is..." His hand raised in tacit appeal for help, then lowered with his disconsolate sigh. "This is exactly why she's afraid of us."
"Game, match and set, boyo," Benny agreed solemnly.
The silence held for a time, each lost in their own inconclusive thoughts. Then Jonathan sighed, spreading his hands. "What are we going to do?"
Benny's short laugh brought Jonathan's head up to see that his friend was regarding him with amused incredulity. "That was a serious question, wasn't it? You mean you really don't know?" Another laugh, more indulgent this time. "Pal, take it from an expert whether you know it or not, you've already made your decision."
A sound outside the cabin pushed the puzzled frown off MacKensie's face. He sprang, yanking the door open to reveal Lydia standing there, C.R. curled up on her shoulder and Carrie huddled fearfully behind.
The woman blinked up at him in open surprise. "You're still here."
Hand poised to help her in, Jonathan hesitated, then glanced back at Benny, who arched a smug eyebrow as he nodded. Understanding came when he looked back at Lydia, at the genuine question in her fear-drawn face. "We're still here," he said emphatically, taking her arm to guide her way into the cabin. Benny set to the task of lighting the wicks of two kerosene lamps as Lydia settled in the chair Jonathan fetched for her, soothing C.R. when the boy stirred with a soft wail. Carrie, bereft of cover by Lydia's desertion, shied back and collapsed in a tight huddle perilously near the still glowing hearth, burying her face in crossed arms.
"I honestly thought you'd be gone," Lydia said, her stare and her voice still wary.
"We" He glanced at Benny long enough to confirm that his companion didn't mind Jonathan's free use of the plural. "We want to help. If we can."
"If you'll let us," Benny added, setting one of the lamps on the nearby table.
"And if I don't?" she challenged, her arms tightening protectively around the boy, who whimpered again, hiding his face in her shoulder.
He decided to stall the question for the moment, assessing the forlorn postures of the children and the tired, drawn face of the once-indefatigable Dr. Schnetzer. "What's wrong? What happened?"
She hesitated, eyes closed, as though struggling with her resolve to be strong and her need to share a terrible burden. "It seems that we could have saved ourselves considerable discussion," she spoke a length, her voice a tired sigh. "Lewis has decided to take matters into his own hands."
"What do you mean?" Benny prodded.
"I mean that he's...gone."
"Gone?" echoed Jonathan, exchanging an alarmed glance with his partner, prompting Benny to enjoin, "Gone as in...with the wind? Or gone as in...?"
"Gone," she repeated firmly. "As in Split City."
While Benny registered considerable surprise at her unusual analogy, Jonathan's brow furrowed in growing anger and confusion. "You're saying that he abandoned his children?"
She gave him an irritated look. "For a while there, I actually had hope for you. I told you that Lewis knew that the children deserved more than life here on this mountain could offer them. He knew it even before his mate died, before I came into the picture and gave Carrie and C.R...ideas. He's done his best to ignore it, to try to preserve the life he knows and loves best, but.. he's finally had to face the truth." Her eyes shone in the pale, flickering light of the kerosene lamp. "They need more. They need a better life, and he can't give it to them. I just spent the better part of two hours yelling at him, arguing with him, pleading with him to at least come with us, but..." Unable to finish, she shook her head and embraced the child in her arms more tightly.
Jonathan went back on his heels, suddenly stricken by a cold, relentless wash of guilt. "It's my fault, isn't it?"
"As much as it is mine," she said without emotion. "Or the dunderheads who opened up those damned nature trails. Or the superstitious fools who tossed out their own for being...different, centuries ago. It's everyone's fault..."
"But the children are the ones to pay," Jonathan finished, staring at Carrie's huddled, shaking form by the fireplace.
"Listen, guys." Benny broke the heavy silence with a jarringly cheerful note in his voice. "If we're finished divvying up the negative karma, maybe we can move on to figuring out how to capitalize on the situation at hand." At finding himself the object of two startled and openly hostile stares, he demurred, "Okay, so capitalize isn't exactly the right word. But I feel compelled to point out here that our man Lewis has just made a rather misguided yet curiously noble sacrifice for the sake of his kiddies here and I personally believe that breast-beating is not exactly what you might call a constructive use of our collective brain power. To quote an acquaintance of recent memory what are we going to do?"
For a moment, Lydia seemed about to take exception to Benny's confident use of the plural, but a careful study of both their faces and the genuine concern reflected there visibly drained tension from her muscles. "I don't know," she admitted tiredly. "I honestly don't know what to do now."
"I'll take that as permission to extemporize." In an agile move, Benny ended up cross-legged at Lydia's feet, leaning forward with hands folded save for index fingers pressed together and pointing up towards her. "You married?"
"Widowed," she managed to stammer after a nonplussed moment.
"Two Ph.D's and a foot surgeon. What are you?"
"There you go. I've got a couple of strings lying around that I haven't pulled in a while I bet I can get you certified as an emergency foster parent in a fast minute. Now, there's"
"Wait, wait," she pleaded. "Before you start planning their college education, I...I've got to catch my breath. Please."
"Are you willing to take on this responsibility?" Jonathan asked, concerned. "It would mean leaving the mountain, contending with the resultant publicity their re-education alone would entail considerable time and energy..."
"I don't have a choice," she said softly, head resting against C.R.'s as she stared tiredly ahead. "I don't mean responsibility or guilt, I mean I really don't have a choice. I gave Lewis my word. He entrusted their care and well-being to me because he knows that I love them as dearly as if they were my own."
"There you go," Benny said with a broad smile.
"But it's not enough. No matter how much love I give them, no matter how much care and attention they'll always be different. They'll always be stared at, pointed to, whispered about." Her anguished gaze suddenly seemed to focus on them. "Exploited."
"Ouch," Benny muttered without losing his smile.
Wounded by the sting of his own guilt, Jonathan placed his hand reassuringly on the woman's arm. "Please, Lydia, believe us. We want to help you not ourselves."
She searched his eyes carefully, not daring to accept his sincerity. "But what do you want in return?" she challenged softly.
Benny interrupted MacKensie's attempt to reply. "Exclusive novelization rights, for one."
"Benedek!" Jonathan hissed furiously.
"I figure I'll serialize in the Register first," the man surged on blithely. "'The Secret of Bigfoot Revealed' in one hundred-point I can see it now. Chapter One: 'Monsters of the Mind'. What d'ya think?"
Jonathan's rising temper drained abruptly to see the wondering, almost grateful look come over Lydia's face as Benny, grinning, added softly, "Subtitled, of course, 'Man's Inhumanity To Man Revisited'. I figure once we get you and the kiddies settled behind a white picket fence somewhere, you and I can sit down and work out a rough outline. The royalties would go a long way towards clothes, bikes, boom boxes, pediatricians, orthodontists, and, you'll pardon my saying so, a really top-notch electrolysist don't you think?"
"Are you serious?" she whispered.
"Only if I get exclusivity," he told her with a warm smile.
She looked at Jonathan. "Is he serious?"
"I think this is as serious as he gets," MacKensie admitted, still dazed by Benny's unexpected offer.
"This could work," she murmured in a voice they could barely hear.
"It could," Benny agreed. "But only if you cut Georgetown Institute in on the deal."
"What?" Jonathan blinked, confused.
"Come on, use that space between your ears, Jack," he chided mildly. "The woman's gonna have her hands full with these hellions as it is. G.I. puts her on staff, slips her some campus housing and bingo she's got an eager beaver campus security force to keep the hounds of the fourth estate off her doorstep and the considerable academic weight of the Board of Trustees to give her some breathing room."
Taken with the idea, Jonathan hesitated, shaking his head. "We've no guarantee that the Board of Trustees will agree to such an arrangement."
"Of course we do," Benny sighed with exaggerated patience. "Think about it Dr. M sent you out here to find Bigfoot, and, by golly, you found him. We'll spring this scenario on her while she's dancing on her desk. Trust me it'll be cake."
Carrie distracted them, coming forward on her hands and knees to take comfort at Lydia's side, hiding her face in the arm the woman placed protectively around her shoulders. "Do they know?" Jonathan asked softly, seeing the tears streaking the tangled hair covering her cheeks.
"I think they do. I didn't hear what their father told them. They were crying, but they came to me when Lewis told them to." She gazed down at the top of Carrie's head. "I won't ask them to forget. I'll always make sure they know that none of this is their fault and that, above all else...their father loved them enough to set them free."
"Damn." His face falling suddenly, Benny shook his head. "Damn. I just remembered. I never saw him."
Jonathan stifled a laugh at Benedek's genuine distress as the man complained, "Ten years! Ten years I've been looking for Bigfoot, and when we finally find him, I don't even get a glimpse. Hey, this isn't funny, y'know. It isn't fair!"
Even Lydia was having trouble controlling her amusement, and the slight shaking of her shoulders roused C.R. The child whimpered questioningly, resisting the woman's attempts to soothe him back.
"Hey." Jumping to his feet, Benny leaned over until he was nose to nose with the child, who balked, then stared at the man in blank wonder. "Hey. Smile for your Uncle Benny, eh? Come on, I've been assured that this visage is especially hilarious to children under 12."
C.R. shied away again, his face screwing up.
"Oops. Time to trot out the heavy artillery." He waved his hand in a grand gesture, then with a flick of his fingers produced a marshmallow from behind the child's ear.
Grabbing his ear, C.R. stared in astonishment at the treat and then at Benny. Encouraged by the man's grin, the boy took the white blob and stuffed it in his mouth, breaking out in a shy giggle.
"That's what I wanted to hear," Benny told him warmly.
A tug on his shirt distracted Jonathan from the antics nearby; he looked down to see that Carrie had ventured forward, poking at the buttons of his shirt. Embarrassed, he took her hands, chiding mildly, "Ah...no, don't do that, Carrie. Please?"
"Oh, go ahead, let her at 'em," Benny chuckled. "You let other women push your buttons all the time."
Flashing him a smile of no-thanks, Jonathan glimpsed the faint light returning to the girl's tear-swollen face and gave in. "All right," he sighed as she attacked his shirt with a cry of glee.
C.R. bent Benny's ear back, searching for the mysterious place from where the man had just produced another marshmallow. The boy's eagerness produced a moment of difficulty for Lydia until Benny made an encouraging gesture and C.R. responded, jumping into the man's arms. "Whoa, easy, easy," Benedek chuckled as the boy, with a determined squeak, continued his quest with the other ear. "I may need those back some day, easy."
Apprehensive, yet charmed by Carrie's intense assault on his shirt, Jonathan looked up when Lydia rose from her chair and placed a hand on his arm. "I really don't know what I would have done if you hadn't stayed," she told him earnestly. "Thank you."
Warmed by her grateful smile, Jonathan barely flinched as Carrie abandoned his clothes, electing to concentrate on his hair. "Lydia, believe me," he told the woman sincerely. "You're more than welcome."
"And you." Lydia turned to Benny with mock ferocity. "You lying, conniving, sneaking filial offspring of a female dog."
"Ah, a loyal fan," he grinned, sleight-of-handing yet another marshmallow for the now-laughing boy in his arms. "I give autographs between noon and two on alternate Wednesdays."
"Make an exception," she growled, tipping up on her toes to plant a fierce kiss on his cheek.
"Whoa!" he crowed, eyes bulging. "I'll never wash my face again!"
"Hmph. Good thing I didn't kiss your feet," she grumbled, rubbing quickly at eyes shining over her smile. For a moment she stood, gazing from one to the other, the faintest line of doubt marring her forehead. "I guess it could work," she murmured uncertainly. "But there's just one more thing I'll need a lot of help with." Her attention swiveled to Jonathan. "You've done a lot of work with native cultures, haven't you?"
He nodded, adding, "Primarily the Plains Indians, exploring their culture with emphasis on religious practices and rituals...."
"Good enough. Carrie and C.R. speak what little English I taught them to get by, but they possess a much larger vocabulary in a dialect I've never had the time to identify. Their mother was a pretty proficient story-teller, too, and from what I've heard when Carrie goes on a streak, she's her mother's daughter. So, before we turn these two into model, civilized citizens, we'd want as complete a record of their lives as we can get." She paused, studying the strange light in Jonathan's eyes. "It would be a tremendous undertaking. It would mean virtually abandoning any papers or projects you're currently working on. Every minute of your time outside the classroom would have to be spent with us. I can't do it I wouldn't be objective enough, and it wouldn't be fair to the children in the long run. But I still feel that it's vital to preserve as much as we can. It's their heritage and our history. I'm familiar with your work, and I firmly believe you're equal to the task. I know you would be thorough, fair, and most importantly sympathetic." She smiled suddenly, indulgently amused. "I think you've got Carrie's vote, too."
Jonathan returned her smile weakly, resisting the girl's attempt to peer down his shirtfront.
"Will you do it?" Lydia asked softly, in complete earnest.
MacKensie avoided making eye contact with Benny, sure that the man exuded a visibly smug glow. Lydia Schnetzer was literally offering to make his career after a little less than seven hours acquaintance, seven hours filled with distrust and open deceptions. Perhaps it was nothing more than a bribe, a bone to keep them busy so that they wouldn't listen to their opportunistic instincts and destroy her life and those of two innocent children while they clawed their own fame and fortune out of the debris. But the light in her eyes wouldn't allow Jonathan to believe that any more than he could believe of himself that he could have actually done it, no matter how sorely tempted he'd been. Lydia's offer was genuine, less an expression of gratitude than simple pragmatism.
Carrie interrupted his thoughts, sitting up straight to stare directly into his face. With a trembling smile, she touched his nose, probed his chin and throat lightly with her fingers, then laid her hand, palm done, on top of his, testing the smoothness of his hairless skin against hers. For a moment, as he looked at the growing light of wonder in her dark eyes, he saw past the tangled hair covering her face and body, saw the frail beauty of a young girl discovering, for perhaps the first time, that she wasn't alone. And in that moment, he finally and completely accepted that what they had done and what they planned to do was in fact the right thing.
He looked up at Lydia and smiled warmly at the questioning look on her face as she waited patiently for his answer. "Dr. Schnetzer," he said. "I would be honored."
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