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White Fur

by

Robert E. Vardeman



"Mr. Landers, thank you for sharing the thrilling tale of that Unpleasantness at the Circle P. It certainly gives one pause to believe such a thing could be possible. As wonderfully chilling as it was, my granddaughter, Abigail Morrison, has just returned from an even more perilous expedition to Central America."

"Truly, Doctor Yarrow, can it be more dangerous?" demanded Cody Landers

"It is, indeed, and this from a man who tragically lost his only daughter to Gobi Desert nomads over a disputed tomb, damn those bloody Uigurs! Abigail is a spirited girl and, through the influence of her late, lamented mother and her father--I am sure you have heard of Professor Herbert Morrison of the New York Normal University--is certain to become one of the most renowned explorers of the Nineteenth Century. Although only listed as a research assistant as she accompanied her father and fiancé, Theodore Strong, a lad of some courage himself, she was the pivotal figure in an astounding discovery."

"Please, Professor, not more lost civilization balderdash," Cody Landers said. "How . . . ordinary."

"The decline of the Mayan Empire was the primary topic of the expedition, but it became more, far more than that, sir. Abigail's discovery will rock the foundations of archeology and evolutionary biology."

"Strong words, sir."

"Perhaps it is hyperbole," Professor Yallow said, "or perhaps this tale of white fur transcends words such as 'strong' and 'extraordinary.'"

"White fur?"

"Allow me to relate the story so you may decide for yourself. It all began when . . ."

* * *

Thunder sounded through the heavy green canopy of jungle growth. Abigail Morrison involuntarily ducked, got a strand of steely vine wrapped around her neck and began to choke. The more she struggled, the tighter it wrapped around her slender throat.

"Watch it, Abby," said the man behind her. Powerful fingers untangled the vegetation, freeing her. "These dangling vines can be dangerous. I wouldn't want to have to use this to cut you free."

Ted Strong held up the machete he used to chop through the dense underbrush. Abigail shivered at the sight of the nicked, dulled blade. When they had started working their way through the Yucatán jungle three days ago, it had been shining and razor sharp. The jungle blunted more than steel. Her entire body ached and her senses reeled constantly. She had thought she was in good physical condition, but peddling a bicycle around Central Park on a warm spring afternoon and hiking through this leafy hell were completely different.

"I'll be okay, Ted. I am just so tired. I'm sorry I dropped back from the rest of the expedition. The humidity, the heat, I can barely breathe. For this I'm missing the dedication of the Eiffel Tower? Would I battle such terrible bugs at the Paris Exposition?"

As if on cue, a swarm of tiny gnats descended on the woman. She batted the insects from her long brunette hair, almost wanting to cry as they squashed and left behind their sticky bodily juices.

"What's wrong?" came a slow, concerned voice. "Are you injured, my dear?"

"No, Daddy, I'm fine," Abigail told her father.

Professor Morrison carefully picked his way back from the front of the column of men carrying the expedition's equipment and stood beside her, scrutinizing her as if she were some new archaeological find. Then his gaze softened, and he shook his head.

"You shouldn't have come. This is no place for . . . "

"Professor, these are different times. Not like when you found the ruins of Lencun or deciphered the Mayan hieroglyphics left in Tikal back in '82."

"I know, Ted, I know. Some of my graduate students are women now. And heaven alone knows Abigail is more knowledgeable than most of the male students. After all, she went on her first expedition when she was only seven just before all that unpleasantness." Morrison sighed. Things were more orderly before the Uigurs. . . .

Ted and Abigail exchanged glances, sadly reminded of Abigail's mother's death.

"Never mind such nostalgia," the white-haired professor said brusquely. "Why'd you stop? It's another hour till break."

"I heard thunder," said Abigail. "It startled me, and I turned. Then the vine snaked down and caught around my neck." Involuntarily, her slender fingers went to the red spot on her throat. Sweat ran down from her cheeks and throat, soaking her khaki shirt, unbuttoned to a spot between her breasts.

"Thunder? Don't be absurd. I heard nothing. We're in the middle of the Yucatán Peninsula. This is jungle and it's not hurricane season. There is no thunder here."

"But you were deeper in the jungle, surrounded by vegetation that could have muffled it. I'd fallen back . . ."

"I didn't hear anything, either. Maybe she heard Kukulcan's wings," joked Ted.

"For my supposedly top research assistant, you come up with some of the most asinine ideas. But then you never hear a word I'm saying in class or out." Professor Morrison turned and went back to the front of the column, pushing past the Indians carrying their supplies.

Ted laughed. "He takes all this too seriously. He acts as if we might actually find Kukulcan."

"Sometimes, I think he's right about your hearing. You get lost in your own thoughts and never hear a word I say. And what did you mean by Kukulcan's wings? Kukulcan was a myth, a legend--and he was supposed to be a white man." Abigail jumped as a biting insect crawled up her leg and bit off a generous sample of flesh. She swatted and felt the ichorous mixture of her own blood and the bug's remains trickle down into the top of her boot. It turned her stomach, but she put on a valiant face for Ted. This expedition meant so much to him--and to her father--she would endure any discomfort for their sakes. Ted would finally finish his doctorate and her father . . .

"Sure, Kukulcan was bearded, fair-skinned and maybe even ruled over Chichen Itza around A.D. 1100. But his insignia was a feathered serpent. Maybe you heard the wings of Kukulcan's totem." Ted grinned after imparting this tidbit of information.

"Maybe it was your brain slipping out gear that I heard." Then in spite of the heat, Abigail shivered at the memory of the thunder. Even when they came to a small clearing in the jungle a few hundred yards farther along the trail and she got a clear view of brilliant blue sky above, she refused to change her mind. She had heard thunder. A single distant clap of thunder.

"Time to break for lunch," called back José Varela, their local guide.

Abigail eyed the short, swarthy man and felt her ire rising. José was handsome enough, one might even say attractive in a rough, primitive way, but he treated her in such a chauvinistic way that she couldn't find it in her to like the man. She found him to be worse than the snooty professors who looked down their noses at her because she was a woman.

"He's not so bad," Ted said quietly, dropping beside her to share his rations. "He came well recommended when our usual guide went missing. You have to remember the Mexican culture values machismo, and that José is very much a part of his society."

"I don't like the way he looks at me. Like . . . like I'm a bug under a microscope. And why isn't it raining? This is jungle. It hasn't done more than fog up since we got past the coast."

Ted laughed. "That's why the Maya died out, or so your father thinks. There's no water to speak of."

"But this is jungle. Look at Africa. There's water everywhere in those jungles."

"Technically, those aren't jungles in Africa--they're rain forests. Only Asia and South and Central America have true jungle. And this is it. High humidity from the coast, high temperature and dry ground." He ran his fingers through the dirt to make his point. "The Mayas died out because their irrigation system wasn't up to maintaining their population. No water, no civilization."

"Doesn't Doctor Goebel think they had extensive irrigation? I remember seeing a reprint article about that."

"He's only guessing. Trust your father's judgment in this. I do. They left because of failing agriculture, and if we find evidence of their migration route on this expedition, it'll be quite the bombshell. Academically, that is."

"I hope you and Daddy can prove your theory, Ted," she said, snuggling closer.

In spite of the stifling heat and the way holding the man's firmly muscled arm made her sweat even more, Abigail felt secure now. Let the jungle bring on its dangers. Let José Varela smirk and try to pinch her. Let Kukulcan himself descend from the sky on feathered wings. It didn't matter.

Just as her face tilted upward for Ted to kiss her, they were interrupted by a harsh laugh. Startled, she saw José Varela's hot eyes on her.

"What do you want?" she snapped.

"We begin again soon. The professor, he feels we are near an ancient ceremonial site. We begin again, but you can continue, you two, ?"

"That's enough, Varela," said Ted. "You might be the best guide in all of Yucatán, but you aren't permitted to spy on us."

"Lo siento mucho," he said insincerely. "I am very sorry. But come, the professor is leaving without us. He is a man in a big hurry to go the wrong way. I tell him to go in another direction, but he insists we go this way." Varela left, a backward glance over his shoulder both insolent and demeaning.

"I don't like him one little bit," said Abigail. "Send him back."

"This isn't the middle of New York City, Abby. He can't take a taxi. We need him and the men with him. Remember what I said about his upbringing. It's all cultural, not his fault."

Abigail Morrison watched Varela's retreating back. The man seemed to laugh at some secret joke. She heaved her pack up, staggered slightly and followed Ted. The rest hadn't done her any good; she was tired again after ten paces into the furnace of smothering green jungle.

* * *

"I found it!" crowed Professor Morrison. "Here it is! I've actually found it!"

Abigail and Ted stood at the edge of the clearing, their eyes fastened on what the man had discovered. A small pyramid--small by Mayan standards--rose four stories from the jungle floor. Atop the 40-foot high mound of cut stone blocks they made out the altar. Religious ceremonies had been conducted here 850 years earlier, bloody sacrifices of innocent men and women by priests dressed in dried human skins stripped off prior victims.

"This was a way station, a place for migrating Mayas along the route as I thought."

"This is a mighty permanent structure," Abigail said dubiously. She looked to Ted for an explanation since her father was occupied with his discovery.

"When we say migration, we don't mean they picked up and just left, going somewhere else. This migration was slower, moving from one large settlement to the next, smaller one. The biggest pyramids are in their longest-lived cities. This shows they didn't intend to stay here long--maybe only a few years. They built this to use as they drifted away from the heavily populated cities."

Abigail jumped when Professor Morrison let out a cry of pure delight and charged to the base of the pyramid. Ted scribbled in a notebook as he followed her father, muttering to himself the whole way. Abigail followed them, not wanting to take away from their moment of triumph. To her untrained eye, other than being smaller, this pyramid looked exactly like its bigger cousins. It was Maya-built, she decided, but would it prove what her father thought?

"There is something odd about this place," said Ted, glancing up from his notes. "It looks deserted, but it also feels as if it's populated."

"Ghosts?" asked Abigail, but she felt it, too. This wasn't any abandoned site. Look The murals on the pyramid walls. Or where murals used to be.

She and Ted went to the broad stone wall and stood a few feet away to better study what they had found. Murals equal to those found in Bonampak remained in place in a few parts, but most of the painted history of this Mayan village had been stripped off by expert hands, and recently.

"It's been no more than a month since this piece was stolen," Ted said, outlining the section he meant. "Look. The jungle hasn't had time to wear down the edges. Sharp and clean."

"This place is being systematically looted," she said softly. "That explained the eerie feeling of people around. Then Daddy isn't the first one here," she said sadly.

With the artifact thieves stealing what might have been the most definitive history of the pyramid, the professor might never be able to prove his theory of gradual migration. This had meant so much to him. The university had said his useful days exploring were long gone; they wanted him to retire. A significant find proving his radical theory of the Mayan departure would have changed the regents' minds. But now . . .

"Look, Abby, see how the pathways leading to the pyramid are worn clean? Someone's been in and out of this area a lot." His booted toe indicated the stone block roadway circling the pyramid. All the omnipresent tiny jungle vines had vanished under the heavy tread of a relic hunter pacing along the walk.

"We're far inland," said Abigail. "Do you suppose Mayas still use the pyramid?"

"I doubt it since they wouldn't desecrate a shrine to Kukulcan."

"You're right. I had hoped there might be another explanation other than thieves. Oh-oh, Daddy has figured out he isn't the first one here."

Silhouetted against the sky, at the top of the pyramid, the old man slumped, head bowed. Hands clenched in useless rage, Professor Morrison turned and pounded against the stone upright nearest him by the altar.

"I'd better go talk with him. Stay here, Abby. Don't go wandering off."

"Ted," she started, but the man already took the steps up the side of the pyramid two at a time, his long legs getting him to the top quickly. Abigail sighed, then jumped.

Thunder. Again.

Frantic, she turned and looked up at the cloudless sky. Her gaze dropped lower as a rustling came from the edge of the jungle. Even there, she saw nothing.

* * *

Abigail awoke to the sound of voices. A loud argument. Bitter. She blinked, trying to clear her eyes of sleep and to focus her thoughts. It was still dark outside as she stumbled from her tent. The words were in Spanish. A scream cut off angry invective, then there was only the silence of the jungle. By this time, Ted and her father were awake, too.

"It came from out there," said Ted, pointing down a trail that disappeared into the thick vegetation. He lifted their lantern, tested his machete on a vine, then took off at a run. Professor Morrison and Abigail were only a few steps behind. Abigail had barely gotten up to speed along the darkened path when she collided with Ted and stumbled back a step. He spun and blocked her view.

"Don't look. It . . . it's pretty ugly."

Past him in the yellow light from the lantern sprawled one of their Indian bearers, his head severed from his torso. Blood had spattered everywhere, turning bright green growth a gory red. She reeled and felt faint. Ted supported her and herded her back to Professor Morrison. She took a deep breath and controlled herself. It had been the shock of seeing such bloodshed that startled her, and now she was better able to deal with the messy death--the murder.

"Who'd do a thing like that?" asked Ted.

"Someone looting this place, that's who," said the professor, his voice low and grim. "Renaldo, poor, poor Renaldo. He didn't deserve such a fate. He was sent with us to snoop around after our original guide was found dead back at the coast. I worried that somebody was trying to stop the expedition."

"Why?" asked Abigail.

"The Mexican Police warned me that Mayan artifacts are finding their way into the black market. I never thought I'd find the source of those artifacts--all I wanted was proof that the Mayas' migration was gradually away from their largest cities. The police suspected several men in the expedition and asked me to keep my eyes open. Renaldo wasn't a police officer but worked for the authorities."

"He died protecting his national heritage," said Ted.

"It just doesn't seem enough. His death must be vindicated." The professor straightened, confidence returning to his voice. Back to camp.

As they reached the clearing where the pyramid sloped upward into the false dawn, he shouted, Everyone line up. Now

Slowly, the remaining men assembled, milling about, mumbling. Professor Morrison quickly went through their ranks examining clothing and checking their machetes.

"Nothing," he said. "And that's everyone."

"Where's Varela?" asked Abigail. "I don't see him anywhere."

Their guide called to them from the top of the pyramid, waving to draw their attention. "I am here, up here What is the trouble?"

"Come down." The professor waited as a man slowly descended from the top of the pyramid.

His clothes were fresh and unsullied by Renaldo's blood.

"What is it, Professor?" asked Varela. "What is this commotion?"

Ted quietly explained. Varela shook his head, as if denying such a thing was possible. Then he said, "The jungle, she is a violent place. Maybe we should return and report to the authorities."

"That'd take days getting back through the jungle," protested the professor. "I want to study the pyramid."

"But the law . . ." protested Varela.

"Where's your machete?" asked Abigail. "You don't have it."

"My knife?" The man gave a Latin shrug that said everything and nothing.

"I'll check the top of the pyramid. I saw you with it up there," said Ted.

"Stop!" came the sharp command. Varela reached behind him and pulled out a small but deadly automatic pistol of German manufacture. He pointed the muzzle directly at Abigail. "Move another step and she dies."

"You killed Renaldo?" Professor Morrison asked. "Why?"

Abigail winced as her captor jammed the pistol into her ribs. Varela took an inordinate amount of pleasure out of circling her throat with his brawny forearm and pressing his body close behind hers.

"You set him to spying. And you, Strong, how did you know I left my machete up on top of the pyramid?"

"Guessed," admitted Ted. "You never go anywhere without it, not in the jungle. You were out of breath, like you'd been running."

"So?"

"So your clothes aren't sweaty. You changed on top of the pyramid because Reinaldo's blood spattered on you, then you thought we'd overlook you and, if we didn't, you could lie your way out. We wouldn't suspect a man without blood on him who must have up there when Renaldo died in the jungle."

"It will do you no good knowing this thing," he said.

"We outnumber you 20-to-1."

"Do you?"

Ted and the professor looked around. All the Indians had vanished. Ted Strong, Professor Morrison and Abigail were left alone with Varela.

Varela laughed when he saw their expressions. "They know what I can do. Renaldo did not. He tried to blackmail me. The fool, the pendejo."

"This looks like a Mexican standoff. You have a gun, but there are still three of us."

"Two, if I kill su novia." Varela shoved the gun into Abigail's throat, just above her pulsing carotid artery. "Would you like to see your daughter killed, Professor? Your lover, Señor Strong? No? I thought not. Come, let us sample some ancient Mayan hospitality. Up the steps. Hurry!"

"Stop him, Ted, Daddy Don't let him!"

Varela jammed the gun into Abigail's right kidney. The pain almost doubled her over. Only the man's stranglehold around her neck held her upright.

Ted took one step, then stopped. He looked squarely down the barrel of the automatic.

"I will kill you now, if you like." The voice came out as cold as the jungle was stifling hot.

"Do as he says, Ted," said Professor Morrison.

"Yes, do as I say. Up!"

They ascended the pyramid one slow step at a time. By the time they reached the stone altar, the tension in the air was like a thing alive. Abigail stopped struggling, hoping to catch Varela by surprise if he dropped his guard for even an instant. The man was too cautious and pressed the pistol against her body so hard she knew a circular bruise the size of the gun's caliber would appear soon.

If she lived long enough for the bruise to matter. Both Ted and Professor Morrison preceded her. If Varela could be distracted . . . if they could distract him, she could shove back and send him tumbling down the pyramid steps.

They reached the summit. The man's hot breath gusted across her ear, and she felt his excitement mount. Whatever he intended was not going to be pleasant. After all, he had decapitated a man for discovering his thievery.

"There, go there," Varela said, shoving her forward. She fell to her knees in front of the stone bier. Behind Varela, dawn lit the sky with pale pinks and yellows and brought life back to the world. Life to the world, death for them. Abigail knew he intended to kill all three of them. He had to, if secret looting of the site wasn't to be revealed to the authorities.

"Tie her down, Señor," ordered Varela.

"You can go to hell!" Ted's hands curled into fists.

The bullet creased the side of Ted's head. Abigail cried out as he spun around and fell heavily to his knees, more unconscious than awake.

"The next bullet goes through his head, if you do not obey me." Varela looked straight at Professor Morrison.

Abigail thrust out her leg and swept it around, trying to kick Varela's feet from under him. He lifted his booted foot and brought it down hard on her ankle, sending a jolt of pain all the way up into her leg. His attention never wavered from her father; he considered her nothing. An annoyance, perhaps, but not a threat. She gritted her teeth against the pain in her leg but anger fed her determination.

"Do as I tell you," Varela said. "Tie her down or I shoot you, too."

Without a word, Morrison started tying his daughter to the altar using rope piled nearby. The pain in his eyes spoke more to her than words ever could. He blamed himself for this. She glanced toward a knapsack and Varela's machete just beyond the rope, hoping he would understand and risk grabbing the wicked knife.

"Daddy, do as he says. It's all right. I understand," she said, playing for time. Repeatedly she looked from his face in the direction of the machete.

He nodded, but she saw no light in his eyes that he understood she wanted him to grab the machete, even if it meant her death.

"Tighter. Tie her down more. Spreadeagle." Varela moved around, positioning himself between the professor and the machete next to the knapsack. Abigail cried out in anguish at the opportunity lost to her father. Varela misinterpreted it as a cry of pain. It excited him.

Abigail silently sobbed as she felt the ropes cutting into her wrists and ankles. Flat on her back, she stared directly into the sky. The false dawn faded back to velvety blackness which slowly changed into muted gray, then to a bright blue. The sun shone down on another cloudless day in the Yucatán jungle.

"I shall perform the ancient Mayan rite of sacrifice on her," boasted Varela. "Do you think she is acceptable to Kukulcan? Is she a virgin?" He laughed harshly when he saw her father's reaction.

"You pig!" snapped Professor Morrison.

Varela goaded him out of sadistic glee.

"No, Daddy, don't!"

The professor lunged at Varela, but the thief and killer expected the attack. With the litheness of a jaguar, Varela stepped back and brought down the pistol butt on the top of the man's head. He slumped to the stone.

"The Mayan priests had a good thing going," said Varela. "I envy them. All the women they wanted--what better way to avoid virgin sacrifice than allowing a priest to do some deflowering, eh? Riches, the best of foods, and all for parading about and muttering to a nonexistent god. Kukulcan, his feathered serpent, ha!"

Abigail struggled futilely against the ropes. She only succeeded in cutting her flesh and causing blood to flow. Her eyes widened as she looked down the length of her body at Varela. He held a long pole with barbed spikes on the end.

And behind him, high in the sky, she saw . . . white.

"Wh-what're you going to do?"

"This is a ceremonial lance I found. Quite deadly. Quite useful, eh? What do you choose? Sacrifice using a Mayan lance or . . . enjoying my lance?" He laid the lance's barbed head on her stomach. A single twitch could rip out her guts. He lightly moved it, cutting off one button after another on her khaki shirt until it parted, laying bare her alabaster flesh.

"The cloud!" she cried. "It . . . it moved"

"Of course clouds move," said Varela, obviously enjoying her fright. "Even the ignorant Mayas knew that."

"But there aren't any clouds." Her eyes widened even more she looked past Varela. The small white cloud took form. Wings appeared on the size of a pencil-thin body. She made out more and more detail as the creature banked and swooped lower. It had wings, but it didn't use them; it glided silently. Then came a thunderclap as the monster made a single powerful downward snap of its wings.

"No!" Abigail shrieked. Varela menaced her, but all she saw was the creature and its long sharp beak, tiny red eyes and snowy white underbelly.

"An old trick," scoffed Varela. "Your father is knocked out and your lover is . . . impotent!" The man laughed at his crude joke.

He stood when a second thunderclap came from another wing stroke intended to send the monster hurtling downward with even greater speed.

He half-turned as talons raked his back, gripped his flesh, lifted him. José Varela screamed in agony when the wicked beak pecked at his eyes and ripped away his throat. His violent death throes wrenched him free of the creature's punishing grip. The lifeless body fell like a rag doll to crunch into the side of the pyramid and then bounce down almost all the way to the jungle floor.

Helpless, Abigail watched as the creature wheeled about, its wings stiff. At the last possible moment, it flapped noisily and braked, landing talons-first on Varela's body. It let out a long, loud squawk of triumph, then began using powerful claws and beak to strip the meat from the body. Blood spotted the creamy white fur of its belly, dribbled down its oyster-white throat. It squawked again, the best part of its meal finished, and then began awkwardly climbing the steps to the summit of the pyramid.

"No," screamed Abigail.

She struggled against her bonds and found a hint of freedom by pulling out of the bonds on her right hand--almost. She struggled harder but panic seized her. Half naked and totally unprotected, she watched as the monster finally topped the pyramid. Hot red eyes bored into her. No intelligence shone out; only raw hunger. Today this beast fed and fed well. Balancing in a half-upright stance, using its eight-foot wings as support, the white-furred beast lumbered forward.

Its long, pointed beak darted out for Abigail's leg. She cringed away in time so that it struck stone. Fat blue sparks leaped away from her. The creature squawked in fury, its tiny head bobbing. The beak plunged downward for her again. This time it found its target.

She felt her entire right leg go numb from the shock of impact. The beak's serrated edges sawed away at her flesh, then tore some free. The monster flapped off to gobble its morsel. Abigail shrieked and moaned and almost passed out from the pain that washed through her body like the inexorable tide of the ocean.

Determination drove her to remain conscious. She kicked about and thrashed about violently to get free of the hemp ropes binding her.

Then she saw a chance--a faint chance--for survival. The barbed lance Varela had tormented her with lay alongside her body. Twisting into an unnatural position, she freed her hand. Clumsily gripping the shaft, she drove the sharp edged blade down, further injuring her leg but also severing the rope binding her to the altar. When the monster came back, she kicked it in the chest. Her bloody footprint appeared in vivid outline on the white chest as it lurched away, warier now of its victim.

Twisting, shrieking, she used the lance to free her other foot. Her father had tied her with a single length of rope binding both her feet and hands. By freeing her feet, she gained some slack in the rope so she could and stab with the lance against the loop still circling her left wrist. More blood spurted as she missed a clean cut. The pain no longer meant anything with survival in the balance. The white-furred creature saw its meal escaping and attacked.

She sat up, braced the lance against the stone altar and let the creature impale itself. Leathery wings buffeted her head and knocked her from the altar. She fell away, dazed. The creature jumped to the altar, spread its wings and prepared to pounce.

"Ted," she sobbed. "Please, Ted."

"Wh--?" came the weak voice. "My head. He shot me."

The creature screeched its hell-call as Ted Strong pulled himself up onto the altar. For a moment, both monster and man stared at each other in disbelief.

Ted acted first.

He punched hard into the creature's chest, knocking it back. The beak jabbed for him.

Abigail moved--fast. She recovered the lance, prodded and poked frantically, forcing the creature to decide between attacking her or Ted.

"Ted, look out!" she cried.

The man reacted before she even voiced her warning. Leathery wings snapped forward to engulf him. He danced back, fists swinging, then he grappled and heaved. Abigail lunged with the spear as the monster turned to avoid the punishment Ted meted out. The barbed point stuck in the breast bone. Red blood flowed over white fur. She pulled the lance out, bringing gory bits of bone and a geyser of blood with it. She tried to recover but lost her balance. Ted grabbed the spear and stood over her, ready to thrust again--but it wasn't necessary.

In pain and rage, the winged beast turned and powerfully launched itself off the top of the pyramid. A thunderclap sounded as the wings made a single powerful downward beat, then it soared upward, found a thermal rising from the jungle and spun away, a white spot once more against the cerulean sky.

Abigail watched until the whiteness vanished entirely, and then she passed out.

* * *

She regained consciousness still on top of the pyramid but with wrists expertly bandaged and her leg, where the creature had sampled her flesh and she had cut herself, sporting a pressure bandages. Ted knelt over Professor Morrison.

"Is he all right?" she asked, her voice wavering.

"We've got to get your father back to a doctor. I'm afraid he might have a concussion. Not too bad, but were going to have to carry him. He can't walk."

"The creature," she said in a low, choked voice. "It's gone?"

"It's gone." Ted looked down the side of the pyramid at José Varela's remains and shook his head.

"What was it?"

"I've got a hunch. Here, help me with your father."

Together they pulled him to his feet and slowly descended the pyramid steps. At the base, Abigail had to rest. "I can't carry him any farther. My leg."

A rustling noise came from the jungle. Ted turned, the ceremonial spear with its bloody tip pointed at the sound. The men in their expedition had returned, fearfully looking at them.

"Can't find your way back without us, eh? We still have the compass!" Ted called. The Indians exchanged looks among themselves, then knelt.

"What are they doing?" Abigail asked, puzzled. She had never expected to see them again, and now they bowed like acolytes before a priest.

"It must not be the compass that brought them back," Ted said, frowning. "We just survived Kukulcan's feathered serpent. That makes us some sort of gods, I guess."

"Kukulcan? Feathered serpent? But that thing had fur. White fur!"

"It just saved your father's job, too."

"What? I don't understand." Abigail shook her head. "This site's been picked clean. Varela beat us to it. How does a creature save Daddy's job?"

"That might not be Kukulcan's feathered serpent, but it was a reptile. A white-furred reptile. I think it was a pterodactyl, but not of a kind ever even theorized. It didn't actually fly as much as it glided, the narrow skull and bone structure were right, it's . . . "

"But it had fur!"

"Why not? No one's ever seen a living pterodactyl and told about it--before now. We've got the proof right here." Ted Strong held up the barbed spear. A patch of bloodstained white fur gleamed in the sunlight of the new day.

"I don't know about such things but we might call it a Pterodactylus abigailus, in your honor."

Abigail hugged Ted tight when she heard the clap of thunder rolling in from the distance. The bearers put Professor Morrison on a makeshift litter and they silently started back for civilization, leaving the Cretaceous predator to its range--until they could lead back a new expedition.

Until she could lead back the expedition.

* * *

"So you see, Mr. Landers, in the annals of the Wanderers' Club my granddaughter's tale must stand at the pinnacle of exploration and scientific discovery...."

and that was true until the next tale told at

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