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The foot soldiers drew nearer to the archaeologists, who struggled to steady their skittish horses. There were soldiers coming from all four directions, and more appeared on either side of the trail. All wore the same uniform, with the same unmistakable insignia on the breast pocket of their jackets --- four black claws curling ominously toward each other --- but there were faces of different nationalities --- rats, shepherd dogs, and hyenas united under the same symbol.
“Not enough you invaded Walla Walla Bing Bang?” Myra spoke suddenly, her voice ringing with tension. “You have to take over Mexicasa too?”
The rat soldiers did not respond, but merely continued to close in, effectively trapping the group.
Finally, a tall, handsome canine stepped forward; it was the captain from the nightclub.
“I am Captain Mario von Trappe," he said, slapping his horse crop against his boot, "superior officer of this platoon. You are now prisoners of the CLAW and as such will surrender your rights as citizens of your country of origin. You shall come quietly or be executed. You are trespassing on territory claimed by the Hounsland Government for CLAW usage ---!” He gave a sudden shout. “Nein! Stop her!”
Arizona Johnson, irritated and out of patience, gave her already edgy mount a painful kick in the side. The beast reared, eyes rolling back, and it struck the air with its hooves. Arizona pulled hard on the reins, forcing it down, then urged it forward. Before the soldiers could even raise their guns, the tigress plowed through them with a warbling battle cry and sent two soldiers sprawling. At the same time, she pulled out her whip, which snaked out and took down another.
O’Bowens, seeing Arizona in action, gave a might-as-well-go-down-fighting shrug and kicked his horse forward. He too used his whip --- and missed. Instead of snagging the legs of the nearest soldier, it snagged a sparse tree growing out of the side of the trail.
“Pull on it!” Katy screamed at him.
Surprised and aghast as three soldiers raced towards him, O’Bowens tugged hard on his whip. The tree’s roots pulled free and fell on the soldiers, burying them in a tangle of roots, leaves, and dirt.
BANG! A gun went off, as Arizona ducked low over her horse’s neck. BANG! Dirt spat up from the ground near the hooves of O’Bowens’ horse.
“Do not kill them! We need them alive!” von Trappe bellowed. “Shoot to wound!”
Two CLAWs advanced on Myra’s horse to try and pull her off.
“Oh, no you don’t!” She swatted at them with her canteen, and caught one a good blow on the forehead. The soldier blinked, staggered, and sank to his knees. As the other one grabbed her ankle, she twisted in the saddle, jerked her leg free, and kicked him hard in the jaw.
Another soldier reached for Katy. Letting out a high-pitched scream, she danced her horse away from him, only to find three more soldiers flanking her on the other side.
“EEEEEEEEE!” Katy swatted at the soldiers with one hand, her other hand holding the reigns. “Help! Peter!”
“I’m coming, Miss Dodd!” O’Bowens wheeled his horse and galloped towards her, inadvertently knocking down a soldier. He flicked his wrist. The whip cracked the air, then wrapped around one of the soldiers threatening Katy, pinning his arms to his sides. Before the soldier had time to do anything more than look extremely surprised, O’Bowens yanked on the whip, knocking the uniformed dog to the ground. The remaining one turned away from Katy towards O’Bowens, who freed his whip with another hard yank. The soldier raised his pistol.
The pistol flew from the soldier’s hand and struck against the rocks.
Still desperately trying to calm her horse, Katy gave O’Bowens an open-mouthed stare of admiration.
Gloved hands grabbed Li’l Bit around the waist and easily pulled her from her horse. The kitten spat, and promptly sank her teeth into the CLAW soldier’s hand, right through the leather gloves. The soldier, a hyena, cursed. “Rotten brat!”
He drew back a fisted hand to strike her, but before the blow fell, the end of a whip wrapped itself around his wrist. He dropped Li’l, and turned just in time to see Arizona’s fist rushing toward him.
As the soldier slumped to the ground, she dusted off her hands.
“ENOUGH!!” The deep voice of von Trappe cut through the fracas. The soldiers stopped. The archaeologists looked about in confusion.
There was a soft sound of protest from Myra, muffled as the captain clamped his hand over her mouth. He pressed the barrel of his pistol to her temple. She squirmed, trying to get purchase on the dusty ground with her feet, but could not get free.
“We do need you alive. You have information valuable to us. But,” von Trappe said reasonably, “there is no reason we need all of you alive.”
The archaeologists exchanged frightened glances.
“After all, you have served your purpose. You led us to the valley. We only need to keep one... or two... of you around in case we your expertise is required.” Slowly, his gloved finger moved, releasing the safety on the pistol with a *click* that seemed to reverberate in the sudden and strange quiet. “Cease resisting, now, or the lady scholar is dead…”
Myra didn’t dare breathe.
He added thoughtfully, “Or perhaps we shall begin with the brat. She is obviously of no use to us.”
“You... disgusting... worm,” Arizona said, her voice low with fury. “Your stooges aren’t good enough to capture four archaeologists and a child, so you resort to taking a hostage.” She laughed bitterly. “No wonder your countrymen are starving. No wonder you have to steal from other countries to survive, and ally yourself with butchers.”
He nodded to one of his men. An obedient hyena stepped forward, turned his gun around, and struck upward, hitting Arizona in the stomach. The tigress slumped forward, gasping for air.
“No!” Li’l cried.
Arizona regained her breath, and straightened in the saddle. Through narrowed eyes, she glared down at the officer. Her eyes went from Katy, to O’Bowens, and finally rested on Myra.
“Very well,” Arizona said to von Trappe, her voice thick with suppressed rage. “We surrender.”
* * *
The mist lifted. The tip of the burning sun cleared the tops of the cliffs. The prisoners ---on foot, their horses and weapons confiscated, hands tied behind their backs and linked in a row by rope, saw the valley for the first time along with their captors. They were probably the first sentient creatures to see the valley for thousands of years.
As the run rose ever higher, they reached the end of the trail. The rock face on either side fell away like a curtain. Spreading below them, with an incredible sense of space, was the lost valley. Low, rolling hills covered in green grass stretched into the distance, to the far cliff wall lost in the haze of a thunderous waterfall that billowed clouds of white. Green trees with lush red fruit were scattered throughout the valley, and through the middle of it all ran a river with a sandy bottom that glittered and danced in the early sunlight. Along the cliff walls were faint depressions and hollows, the traces of what had once been cliff dwellings. Birds swooped across, crying.
In spite of their predicament, the archaeologists drank in the sight with hungry eyes, eyes accustomed to longing after sights unseen, mysteries once covered.
“At last...” von Trappe said softly, eyes going distant. “At last we will have the riches our country needs to rise once more to greatness...” Then he came out of his reverie, turning smartly to his soldiers.
“Make camp,” he ordered. “And then... interrogate the prisoners.”
* * *
Brown canvas tents stood in rows near the banks of the shining river, like large boulders on the grass. Soldiers in black uniforms scattered throughout the valley, some guarding the perimeter and entrance, others using rope to scale the treacherous valley walls or search the hollows. Still others dug into the lush grass, until the valley floor started to look scarred. The archaeologists, bound with their hands behind their backs, had managed to edge over to the opening of the tent flap so they could peek out.
Katy hissed to Arizona, “Would you please move your big head out of the way?”
“Would you please shut your big mouth?”
“Judging by the artifacts, I’d say this valley was once home to a highly advanced civilization,” O’Bowens observed sadly, as two soldiers dropped a box full of pottery chards carelessly onto a camp table with a thump.
Occasionally soft, distant thuds reverberated through the valley, accompanied by small puffs of smoke.
“No!” O’Bowens whispered. “Not explosives!”
“They’re ruining it,” Katy choked. “They don’t care... they don’t care about the significance of this find!” She squirmed, pressing her eye to a slit in the tent fabric.
Two rat soldiers stood stiffly at attention just outside
the tent entrance, their backs to the archaeologists.
“At least they’re following proper digging procedure... where they’re digging and not blasting,” Myra pointed out. She was still shaken from her brush with immediate death, but her historian instincts kicked in, and she could finally speak. “Hounsland... Ratzenstein... Hynkenland... have produced many brilliant minds. They won’t destroy the evidence left here.”
“Oh, please,” Katy snapped. Her hair had become ragged and her lips were pale --- she’d unconsciously chewed off her lipstick. “How naive can you get?”
“Much as I hate to admit it,” Arizona said sourly, twisting her wrists as unobtrusively as possibly as she tried to free her hands, “I don’t exactly trust the CLAW to have the proper reverence for an ancient Yuran civilization.”
“Yes,” O’Bowens agreed darkly. “Especially since the Yuran... are, in the opinion of some Houn writers, considered part of a lesser civilization.” His lip curled. “That’s overlooking, of course, any major contributions the Yuran have made to the world. They invented what is the basis for our modern calendar. They were astronomers, scientists, had an advanced system of writing, and understood the concept of zero long before Hounsland, Ratzenstein, and Hykenland did.”
“They also invented chewing gum!” Katy added admiringly.
Li’l said nothing. It was obvious that she wished that they would all shut up so she could think.
“I can only guess what they think of the Mexicasans,” Myra muttered.
“I didn’t know they had gotten permission to cross their territory,” Arizona said thoughtfully.
“My guess is they didn’t,” said Myra.
The tent flap opened, letting in a flash of sunlight, and Captain von Trappe stalked in. His sharp, black eyes regarded the group as they fell silent, glaring at him.
“It is time to ask you again,” he said, his tone clipped. “What else do you know?”
“We told you,” Katy said rudely. “Nothing. N-o-t-h-i-n-g. All we know is what we told you.”
“Ah yes. The ‘river of gold, trees of rubies, ground of emeralds, rain of pearls.’ Yes, we do know that. What I am asking is...” he paused and bent over, bringing his face closer to Katy’s; she shrank back. His breath smelled stale --- a strange mixture of tobacco and peppermint. “... where is the gold, the rubies, the emeralds, and the pearls. There must be something else.” He straightened abruptly and stalked over to the table, where the tablets were arranged in proper sequence. “On here!” Suddenly, he brought the crop whistling down, hitting the tabletop, making them all flinch. “On the tablets!” The officer picked up a tablet and returned to the bound group. Reaching down, he grabbed O’Bowens by the front of his shirt and half-hauled the chimpanzee to his feet. “Tell me! There must be something else in these strange markings you all can understand, but I cannot. What else do the tablets say?”
O’Bowens stared straight ahead and said nothing.
The captain slapped him. “What do the tablets tell you that they don’t tell me?”
Arizona kicked out, hooking the officer’s ankles with her own, bringing him crashing to the floor of the tent. “What they tell me,” she said, enunciating each word with deadly emphasis, “is that goose-stepping idiots like you should spend more time studying ancient civilizations instead of blowing them up!”
The two watching CLAW soldiers ran over. One helped his superior to his feet. The other leveled his gun at Arizona.
“If she does anything like that again,” said von Trappe, wincing as he took a step, “shoot the child.”
Arizona’s eyes widened as she glanced at Li’l, who glared at the soldiers, her eyes murderous. She actually looked insulted --- as though she objected more to being referred to as ‘the child’ than to the notion of being shot.
The others looked shocked, even Katy.
He paused at the entrance to the tent. “You Uslanders are pathetic,” he said. “You led us right to the valley. You led us right to the tablets. It was child’s play to track you down, once our spies found out who had put the tablets up for sale. We had your friend watched, of course, and when we learned who he sold the tablets to...” The Hounslander sighed with mock regret. “Your monetary friend was most... cooperative. He seemed a bit down on his luck. I am sure he shall fare much better in one of our work camps.”
Myra, Katy, and O’Bowens gasped.
“So you understand.” He smiled at them, showing a dead gray front tooth. It marred his otherwise matinee idol handsomeness. "He will eat only when we decide he has worked long enough hours. He will be so exhausted that he won't even dream of escape. He will beg us to kill him, but we will not. He will simply wear out... and be discarded. Your friend will end his days most usefully.”
“Charlie was a sleaze,” Arizona said quietly, “but he didn’t deserve that.”
Von Trappe smiled again. “Think about Charlie in the work camps,” he said, “while you consider whether to share your knowledge to the great and glorious Ratzenstein government.”
“Go back to your homeland,” Katy told him, her eyes narrowed with contempt, “and tell your leaders to keep their grubby paws off the rest of the world!”
“You have a sharp tongue, Miss Dodd,” he said, his voice dangerously soft.
She shrank back against O’Bowens, but could not stop herself.
“These are archaeological treasures --- history that you’re messing with. You don’t deserve to know its secrets. You won’t get away with this --- your kind never does.”
“Um, Miss Dodd, I don’t think now is the time to---!”
“You’re nothing! Nothing but a craven little coward, hiding behind your brainless grunts!” Her eyes blazed as she glared fiercely at him.
The leader snapped his fingers. “Gag her!”
Katy found her mouth stuffed with rags. She couldn’t be sure, but she could have sworn she heard Arizona mutter, “Thank you.”
Before he turned to leave, the leader hissed, “Remember Charlie.”
* * *
As soon as the members of the CLAW left the tent, Arizona immediately stationed herself at the opening. O'Bowens joined her.
There were two hyena soldiers guarding the tent at either side of the open flap. Nearby two Ratzenstein soldiers stood at a table, examining the finds of the morning. The tablets were laid out on the table among the other items.
The more heavyset rat squealed excitedly and pointed at the tablets. “Hey, looky --- I found a map of some kind… what are these funny squiggles?”
Katy, who had been squirming and shifting her jaw for the last half hour or so, finally managed to work the gag free. However, she wisely did not immediately start yelling insults at their captors again. “Hieroglyphics, you moron,” Katy muttered quietly instead. “You were saying earlier about brilliant minds, Arizona?”
Arizona hushed her.
“Aw, what kinda lousy map is this?” the soldier said, disappointed. “Where’s the X-marks-the-spot?”
“Never mind that, Roscoe,” a taller soldier standing nearby told him. He held out a handful of flat, diamond-shaped rocks, all sharpened at the tip. “Get a load of these pointy things!”
“Those are spearheads,” Katy said through clenched teeth. “Not ‘pointy things’!”
Not hearing her, he asked his stocky companion, “What do you do with them?”
“Hey, when we get to a lake, maybe we could skip them across the water. I skipped a stone four times once.”
“That’s nothing. I did seven last year.”
Katy moaned. “I don’t believe this.”
Neither could O’Bowens. “They want to skip ancient spearheads as if they’re ordinary pebbles? What kind of barbarians are they?”
“Save your breath, you two,” Arizona said wearily. “These guys don’t know what they’ve got, or even care.”
“But look what they’re doing!” Katie watched in horror as the chunky agent, Roscoe, took a pair of tribal drumsticks and stuck them up his nostrils.
“Hey, Rudy --- look at me --- I’m a walrus!” he cried. His friend, the taller rat, snickered
Katy said indignantly, “Those ‘sticks’ were used on war drums to send messages to other tribes…”
“Never mind,” Arizona murmured. We’re getting out of here.”
“And how, pray tell?”
“If you’ll shut your yap for a few minutes, I’ll think of something.”
“Soon, I hope.” Katy watched with disgust as Roscoe removed the drumsticks from his nose and wiped them on his coat. “What if we waited until tonight, when they're asleep?”
“If I know marauding goons, they’ll post a sentry or two,” O’Bowens said. “And they’ll be armed.”
“Yes, but the darkness will even the odds considerably,” Arizona said. She added, “As long as they don’t kill us before turning in for the night.”
“Cheery thought,” said Katy, shuddering.
“Keep working, you buffoons!” von Trappe barked. “We do not have all day.”
“We need a weapon.” Arizona’s eyes flicked over their surroundings, noting every stick, stone and object. “Something sharp to cut these blasted ropes…”
The obnoxious Roscoe made a show of examining three clay bowls, then tossed them carelessly aside, dropping one. It snapped in half. “Oops. Butterfingers.”
Myra couldn’t stand it anymore. “Look what you did!” she shouted. “You broke it! You keep your filthy mitts off those artifacts---!”
Von Trappe, who had been thoughtfully contemplating a Hummelle figurine, heard her. He set down the figurine. Cloak whirling like a dervish, he signaled his men and strode into the tent.
“Silence, woman! I will have no further insolence!”
Two hyenas hoisted Myra up by the elbows, forcing her to her feet. Her position adjusted to his liking, the leader drew back one powerful arm. Sensing what was coming, Myra tried to turn her head to the side, but one of her captors roughly pushed it back to receive the blow.
He backhanded her with a hard, resounding slap. Myra’s head snapped back, her vision suddenly exploding in a burst of stars. Laughing, her captors deliberately dropped her. As she fell, her glasses landed near O’Bowens’s feet.
Von Trappe looked down at her with grim satisfaction before turning away. “You see? Defiance has its price, Miss Foxworthy.”
Dazed, Myra squinted at him. The left corner of her mouth was bleeding. Arizona’s eyes were bright with fury.
Katy yelled, “Just who do you think you are---!” but Arizona kicked her shin, willing her to silence with a fierce stare. O’Bowens cringed and looked away. Li’l watched, her eyes round and transfixed.
Although still tied up, Katy and O’Bowens managed to inch over until they were behind the fallen archaeologist, and clumsily tried to help her sit up by planting their feet against her shoulders and pushing upwards.
“Those bullies!” O’Bowens muttered.
“Are you all right, Myra?” Arizona asked quietly.
Myra grimaced. “I’ll live. Shaken but not stirred.”
“This won’t be forgotten,” the tigress promised. Her mouth became a grim line as she coldly stared after the CLAW leader’s retreating back. “Believe me.”
* * *
The day grew overcast, low-hanging clouds looming misty and dark over the valley. The clouds dimmed the vividness of the valley's colors, yet at the same time deepened them, making them more dramatic. It grew cooler. The CLAW stopped their work for the moment, and began securing their gear as the wind picked up.
A mosquito landed on O’Bowens’ knee. He swatted it away with his tail.
“We have think of a way out of this mess,” Arizona muttered. “The fate of the free world depends on it.”
Katy snorted. “Hey, I know --- why don’t you get your millionaire boyfriend to bail you out of this one?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, come on, Miss Johnson. It’s no big secret. You don’t really think nobody knows about you and your… captain of industry?” She drawled the last three words like one would savor chocolate.
“Um, maybe we should concentrate on getting out of---!” Myra began tentatively.
Neither of them paid attention. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Katy smiled sweetly. “Well, you have been seen around town taking a taxi from Khan Towers, wearing an evening gown a few times. What, has he been funding your digs lately as well?”
Arizona took a deep breath, wishing her hands weren’t tied. “Don’t confuse my methods with yours, honey. Anyone who dresses the way you do and wear three coats of cheap lipstick is bound to leave lip prints on some rich guy’s butt!”
“Oh!” Katy was outraged. “Why, you --- you---!”
“Hey, that’s uncalled for!” O’Bowens suddenly sat up straight. “Don’t you speak to Miss Dodd that way!”
Myra tried again. “Please, if we could just focus on---!”
“Miss Dodd?” Arizona mimicked. “Oooh --- prec-ious! Try not to sit too close to Miss Dodd. You might touch her and turn to gold. Or is that gee-whiz manner of yours just an act? You’ve been mooning over her throughout this whole trip.”
“What! I-I have not!” O’Bowens turned bright red, glancing guiltily at Katy, but she was too angry about Arizona’s comment about lip prints to notice. “What about you --- bossing everyone around, bringing that spoiled brat along --- she belongs in reform school, not on a dig!”
“I’d settle for a birdcage,” Katy added.
Miraculously, they obeyed, mouths hanging open in surprise. The mouse had roared.
Now in control, Myra said coldly, “Now you listen to me --- the most important thing right now is escaping. We have to work together.”
Katy couldn’t help herself. Pointing at the silently fuming Arizona, she protested, “But she said---!”
Myra shot her a look, and Katy meekly fell silent.
She glared at them all. “All this time, ever since we set out on this expedition, you’ve done nothing but snipe at each other.”
Li’l pointed to herself as if to say, who, me?
“You are all acting like children! And furthermore, I’d be ashamed to have my museum employ a single one of you!”
Silence fell as this sank in.
Something in the air outside the tent shifted, another change in the light, a damper feel to the air. They heard a soft patter on the walls of the tent, and through the open flap, they saw rain begin to fall. First it came in big, slow drops, and then the skies opened up.
Arizona scootched over on her bottom closer to the tent flap, her back to the others, and moodily looked out, watching the rain. The shower ended as quickly as it had started. The rain slackened, and a crack in the clouds revealed the sun. Its beams caught the still falling rain and streaked down to the valley floor.
“Myra?" Arizona said, her back still to them, a strange note in her voice. "What was the poem, exactly, from the tablets again?”
Myra blinked. “Well, let's see, it was… river of gold… rain of pearls… ground of emeralds… trees of rubies. Why?”
“Come over here, and I'll show you.”
Curious, Myra wriggled over next to Arizona. The others followed, their differences forgotten in the magnetic pull of an archeological puzzle.
Above the long, green valley, sun and rain streaked down from broken clouds. The light caught the rain, then touched the now sparkling stream that trailed across the valley floor, making the streambed look like….
“Gold,” O'Bowens whispered, seeing. “The sunlight's making the stream look like gold.”
“You see it?” Arizona turned to look at them. “Look at what the sunlight's doing to the falling rain.”
“Pearls,” Katy said.
“And the grass looks like emeralds,” Myra said, her voice thick with a growing excitement. “Because the sun's reflecting off the moisture on the blades…”
“…and red fruit on tree!" Li'l finished. “Rubies!”
“Arizona, you did it! We solved it! We solved the tablets!” Myra gave her a dazzling smile, her eyes shining with happiness. For a moment, she was lovely.
“A puzzle centuries old, from a much-overlooked ancient civilization,” Katy mused, with a faraway gaze. "An appreciation of the value of their natural surroundings.”
“A sense of poetry and metaphor," said O'Bowens.
“Fascinating!” All four archaeologists burst out at once.
Katy chuckled. "Meanwhile, Von Trappe still thinks he's looking for buried treasure. Perfect."
Arizona began to scan their immediate area, her gaze now on the ground.
“What are you doing?” O'Bowens asked.
“Look for something sharp. A rock, anything.”
“A rock?” Katy said derisively. “Against all those guns?”
“Either help or shut up." Despite her calm tone, Arizona's claws sprung out, and she absently combed several grooves into the sodden earth. "We have to get out of here.”
There was a small stone near O'Bowens’ foot. Arizona maneuvered herself closer, reaching with her fingers, and managed to grab it.
“Hmmm…” she said absently, studying it. “Arrowhead.” With a twist of her bound wrists, she managed to flick it to O'Bowens, who caught it instinctively. "Try this on the ropes. I've been working at mine with a claw, but they're thick and I'm not making much progress. See if you do better."
"Not yet," Arizona added, as O'Bowens started to work on his ropes. "Tonight."
"We'll need supplies," said Katy. “Water, blankets, some food… it's several days' hike out of here."
"I'm not sure what they did with our packs." O'Bowens slipped the arrowhead into his socks, safely tucked out of sight.
"No time to look," Arizona said. "We'll have to steal some."
Li’l Bit's face lit up.
* * *
"Just let me get this last… all right, Li’l's hands are free."
"There are two of them just outside the tent. Rudy and Roscoe. From the looks of them, a couple of real dim bulbs.”
“Lucky for us. Li’l, stay here. Myra, let's go.”
Severed pieces of rope lay all over the tent floor. Myra, clutching a rock in her palm, came over next to Arizona, who crouched at the tent flap. The singing of night insects in the trees almost drowned out their whispers. One or two torches burned here and there in the CLAW camp, but other than that darkness covered the valley. The grass was so verdant that it was green even at night. The moon glowed above them, but it was waning now.
Thin clouds drifted across the stars and moved on --- the storm was over. The landscape was washed clean, the tips of the grass sparkling damply. There was a cool, light breeze that smelled of flowers.
"Why is Myra doing this again?" O'Bowens whispered in Katy's ear.
"Arizona says she's the lightest on her feet," she whispered back. "So they won't hear her sneak up on them and knock them senseless."
"Wait until we come back," Arizona hissed back at them. Then she and Myra slipped outside like two shadows.
There was a thud, a surprised grunt, then another thud, in rapid succession.
"Quick, tie them up!" Arizona backed into the tent, hauling an unconscious guard by the armpits. Myra appeared dragging the other one. O'Bowens and Katy used the remains of the rope to bind the guards' hands and feet.
“Wait. What if they yell for help?” Katy asked. “That’s what I would do.”
“Look for something we can use as a gag,” he advised.
She glanced around the tent, then reluctantly down. “Maybe if I tore off the hem of my ---!”
O’Bowens gulped. With a deep breath, he hastily tore his own shirt open.
Katy’s eyes popped. “Wha-what on earth are you doing?”
“Making a gag, what else?” He tore a few strips from the garment and gagged them with a few strips of cloth. The shirt fluttered open, hanging on his skinny frame in tatters. “A little trick I learned in…”
She smiled. “Scouts. I remember.”
"Wait a minute, where's their… Li’l!"
The kitten stood smiling faintly in the darkness, several items triumphantly gathered in her arms: Two canteens, two pistols, a flare gun, two packets of food, and two flashlights.
"Li’l, I told you…" Arizona shook her head, smiling in spite of herself. "Good job. Now let's get out of here."
They divided the supplies up among themselves. Myra emptied the bullets from the guns and tossed the bullets out through the flap. She dropped the guns on the grass next to the sleeping guards.
Arizona frowned at Myra's decision, but continued to keep watch through the tent flap.
"All clear," she whispered.
One by one, the group stepped cautiously through the tent opening.
It seemed that half the camp, at this time of night, was in fact asleep. They heard loud snores coming from a nearby tent. A light glowed inside another, so they circled far away from it. The large central command tent was dark.
"Uhhh-ohhh," O'Bowens said slowly, glancing back the way they had come.
"What?" Katy hissed, clutching his arm.
"Someone has noticed that our friends are missing…"
They all turned to look. Sure enough, two other soldiers were standing outside the tent, looking around in a puzzled fashion. They spoke to each other in an undertone. Then both turned and strode purposefully towards the tent that had been the archeologist's prison.
"Move fast. NOW." Arizona scooped up Li’l Bit, ignoring the kitten's indignant but muted squawk of surprise, and began running, Myra hard on her heels. Without giving it much thought, O'Bowens grabbed Katy's hand and the two ran after them.
There was a shout behind them, then more voices, arguing loudly. Lights began to come on around the camp.
"Damn it, Myra, I wish you'd let me keep those guns…" Arizona muttered, not the least out of breath as they ran.
"I… couldn't… let us… sink… to… their…. level!" Myra panted, struggling to keep pace. Even holding Li’l Bit, Arizona was a hard runner to catch.
"Terrific. When we get recaptured, you can shoot your ideals at them!" Arizona retorted.
They were nearing the cliff wall, with the archway leading out of the valley a few hundreds yards ahead, when suddenly Arizona came to a halt so abruptly Myra crashed into her from behind.
"Wha--!" Myra began, then saw what Arizona had seen.
Myra and Arizona quickly grabbed Katy and O'Bowens as they ran by and pulled them behind a nearby boulder.
"What's wrong?" Katy asked.
"The arch is guarded," Myra explained. "Six."
"Four, we could take, easy," Arizona said, making a sweeping motion. "But six… we can't risk it. Plus, the noise will draw the rest over."
"What we do now?" Li’l Bit asked. She crouched, scowling.
"Hide. And look for another way out. These cliff walls are full of caves… the Yuran were incredibly advanced. There could be tunnels… a secret exit."
They spent the rest of the night stumbling through the scrub and boulders, exploring the base of the cliff with no torch --- the risk of alerting their former captors to their presence was too great. There were numerous caves --- none of which led anywhere.
Several times they had to huddle inside a cave, waiting, when the shouts and searchers and flashlights got too near. They could hear von Trappe angrily bellowing orders not too far away from their hiding place. Myra shuddered and closed her eyes, touching the corner of her mouth where a bruise was forming. It was chilly in the cave, but they didn't dare light a fire.
Von Trappe kept up the search past dawn and into the morning. The archeologists kept moving from cave to cave, overhang to overhang. They lay down inside a thicket, and wedged themselves into narrow cracks.
Finally, they heard the captain call off the search. "Bah! They are not worth it! Regroup back at the camp."
"Well, that's good," said O'Bowens, relieved. "Gives us a chance to…"
“… prepare the explosives. This valley has nothing of value. We depart to conquer fresh land and to grind our enemies to dust!”
From many of the soldiers, there was a chorus of cheering.
"Explosives?" Katy asked in a small voice. "What do you think they're going to do with…"
"Blow up the entrance, what else?" Arizona said sharply. "Leave first, blow it up behind them. Sealing us in."
Katy clamped both her hands over her mouth, eyes wide. O'Bowens patted her shoulder awkwardly, offering comfort.
Even Li’l Bit appeared shaken. The kitten moved closer to Arizona's side.
"We'll find another exit," Arizona said grimly. "We will."
It took the better part of the afternoon for the CLAW to break camp and rig the explosives. Arizona went out scouting twice, reporting back that they had a detonator wire several hundred yards long. Once the entire division was out of the valley…
"BOOM." Li’l Bit spread her arms wide.
"So we can't sneak out after them." O'Bowens poked listlessly at the ground with a stick. Either we'd have to hide in range of the explosion, or they would spot us coming after them." He began to doodle, the scratches he made closely resembling The Sea Duck.
The others turned to her in surprise. She shrugged, embarrassed. "Baloo and Kit are good in a crisis."
"I'd settle for your millionaire at this point," Katy said wryly.
Arizona looked at her warily, as if expecting another barb. But there was no venom in Katy's voice. It had almost sounded like an apology.
They ate the dried rations from the stolen food packets. Myra and O'Bowens got into a heated debate about the significance of the markings on a fragment of pottery they found. Li’l curled up in a ball and fell asleep, while Katy and Arizona sat in an uneasy truce, talking only when necessary.
A few hours later, they heard a deep boom, following by a sound like a landslide. Myra and O'Bowen's discussion trailed off. The rumbling died away into quiet.
"That's it, then," Katy said.
Arizona briskly hopped to her feet. "Wake up, Li’l," she said, gently prodding the kitten with the toe of her boot. "Spread out, but stay in sight of each other. If you find a cave, signal. We'll all check it together. Sooner or later, we have to find one that leads to a tunnel out of here."
Li’l yawned, her ears going flat against her head, showing all her teeth. Then she got up and went scampering outside, excited about the search now that the immediate danger was past. The others followed more deliberately. O'Bowens found a stick and used it to poke into cracks, hoping to trigger a mechanism that might open a hidden doorway. Myra and Katy took the high, dry ground closest to the cliff face, Katy about fifty yards ahead of Myra. The ground there was covered in scrub and loose shale, but there were many shadowy openings to investigate. Arizona and Li’l Bit pushed their way through the damp foliage near the grass of the valley floor. There were large boulders there, depressions in the ground that held promise.
The sun hung low over the opposite cliff face, late-afternoon rays slanting warmly over the searchers. It made the searching harder because the shadows were deeper and created the illusion of hollowness where there was none.
Arizona had lost sight of Li’l. She paused, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand, turning to look ahead of her, then towards the near cliff wall where Myra, Katy and O'Bowens were poking around.
"Li’l?" she called tentatively. Then, more urgent: "Li’l!"
No answer. "Li’l!" Arizona shouted, her voice ringing out and echoing against the walls.
The other three paused in their search, then started down towards her from their various positions.
"Li’l!" Arizona shouted again.
This time, there was a faint response, a thin cry somewhere ahead. Without waiting to see if the others were following, she shoved her way through the undergrowth, heedless of branches that slapped at her arms.
Ahead, the ground dropped slightly. There was a hollow, its edges ringed by boulders and trees. At the center of the hollow, the ground had given way, leaving a hole. Arizona climbed over the boulders and peered down.
Her startled glance was met by Li’l Bit’s, her eyes huge and frightened as she stared up at Arizona. She was clinging for dear life to a root cluster, her feet scrambling for purchase.
"Hold on, Li’l. Hold on." The tigress uncoiled her whip, then lay down on her stomach by the hole.
Under Li’l's weight, the roots began to give. As Arizona frantically reached down to Li’l, the root the kitten was clinging to pulled free of the dirt.
"Liii'llll!!" Arizona screamed. Her reaching fingers only grabbed air.
"Li’l!" O'Bowens breathed, horrified. He knelt beside Arizona. Myra and Katy stood behind him.
"We have to go down and get her," Myra said grimly.
Arizona remained where she was on her stomach, hand still outstretched and reaching, as if she were frozen.
"Arizona! There big shiny jewel down here and funny pictures on wall! You come see!" Li’l's voice drifted up from the bottom, echoing as if she were in a cave. She sounded excited and obviously unharmed.
The tigress made a strange sound, half groan, half sigh, and lowered her face to the ground, her arm finally relaxing. She lay there like that for a few moments, limp. She muttered something that sounded like, "I'll kill her," before pushing herself up.
She tied one end of the whip around the tip of a boulder, then lowered herself down. O'Bowens and Katy followed. Myra stayed topside in case of trouble and they needed help getting back out of the hole.
It wasn't as deep as Arizona had feared, perhaps twelve feet at most. She switched on the flashlight they had stolen from the guards. Li’l's fall had been broken by a bed of dead leaves, broken twigs, and dirt. The cave was small, maybe eight feet in every direction, and ended in what looked like solid walls.
Li’l was standing before a flat rock, her clothes covered in mud and dead leaves.
To Li’l's incredible astonishment, Arizona picked her up and hugged her tightly. "You okay? No broken bones?" Li’l shook her head, so Arizona put her down and turned her attention to the rock.
It was like a plinth. Resting on it, glowing even without the help of the torch, was a jewel of a strange, greenish-blue color, about the size of a fist. It was roughly pentagonal, with two sides wider than the others.
O'Bowens and Katy breathed out twin sighs of awe.
"This…this is an incredible find…" Arizona said. She walked around the plinth, studying the stone. It was then that they all noticed the pictographs on the wall. Arizona translated. "'Lest what happened before happen again, this stone will seek one pure of heart and speak.'"
"What that mean?" Li’l wrinkled her nose.
"Who cares?" said Arizona. "We're gonna be rich! This is the find of the century--when's the last time you heard of a gem that big, O'Bowens?" In her excitement, she gave him a friendly punch on the arm.
"Ow. Not recently. And such an odd color, too. It's not an emerald."
Calmly, Arizona took the stone from its resting place. As she touched it, the glow shimmered a bit but otherwise nothing happened. With a shrug, Arizona put it in her bag. "Now, let's climb up out of here and get out of this valley. I can't wait to announce this find to the world!"
* * *
It was just before sunset before they found it.
Arizona stood on her tiptoes, straining to see over a large boulder. “There has to be another path out of here,” she muttered to herself. “Didn’t think we’d be dealing with this kind of rough terrain... Peter, do you see anything?”
“Nothing we can use,” he replied.
“Well, keep looking! Leave it to Arizona to lead us into a maze,” Katy spat, irritated.
“Ugh, it’s hotter than an oven out here,” Myra said, somewhere distant.
Arizona tilted her head around to find the source of the voice and caught sight of a smug-looking Li’l.
She grinned. “What are you smiling about, short stuff?”
“I find treasure! I did it!”
Arizona crossed her arms and tilted her head for a moment, smiling after the child. “We'll make an archaeologist out of you yet," she said under her breath.
“Hey, some of us are actually looking for a way out of here!” Katy blew a strand of hair out of her eyes.
“For someone who digs, you have no patience,” Arizona calmly replied. “We’ll find a way out of here soon enough. In fact...” she walked up to a rocky overhang, hoisted herself upon it, and looked out, “here is it right now.”
“Huh? Up there?”
“It’s a steep path but it’ll get us out.” Arizona walked to the edge of the rock and cupped her hands to her mouth. “Peter! Myra! Li’l! Found a way out!”
“What? Let me see that!”
Katy hoisted herself up on the rock and surveyed the unfriendly terrain. The path was harsh but negotiable. The first twenty feet down out of the valley was steep and had lots of loose rocks, but they could manage. “Hmm. Well, okay. Fine. We go this way.”
“Glad you approve. Now excuse me while I get the heck out of here.” Arizona tightened the straps on her pack and braced herself to get down the incline. Her foot slipped on the gravel a bit, then steadied.
“Do-able,” she muttered.
As she lowered her other foot onto the incline, Katy reached out and patted Arizona’s shoulder with a badly faked affection. “Good job, soldier.”
Arizona turned back to Katy to deliver a scowl, but suddenly felt her canteen fall from her pack and jerk heavily on its string. The impact was enough to cause her to lose her balance --- her eyes widened as she looked up the vixen, whose eyes went wide as well, shocked. Katy reached to aid her, but it was too late. Arizona’s leg twisted and she went tumbling down the incline.
“Arizona!” Katy yelled.
Parts of the tigress’s pack went flying as she hit a large rock with her knee and thigh. She cried out in pain, still rolling, and finally came to a stop at the bottom of the incline, splayed and motionless.
Katy was stunned. “I... I just... and it...”
“Arizona!" Myra shouted, at the same time as O'Bowens called, "Are you okay?”
No response. Li’l suddenly pushed her aside and yelled something frantic in Q’ilu and tried to charge down the incline. O’Bowens jumped and grabbed her in one long brown arm. Li’l fought him, biting and kicking.
“Just hold on!” he said, and reached for his whip. “Arizona, we’ll be right there,” he called down her. He flicked his whip so it snapped around an oblong, steady boulder, and steadily lowered himself down the incline, his arm wrapped around the kitten’s waist.
“Will you look at that!” Myra exclaimed.
Katy clasped her hands together and gazed at O’Bowens with admiration. He looked up, met her gaze, and almost lost his balance. Li’l took that opportunity to leap out of O’Bowens’s grasp and slide down the incline to Arizona. He made it down soon after.
Li’l was at Arizona’s side, speaking in agitated Q’ilu. She gently patted the tigress’s face, trying to wake her. She did, amber eyes opening a crack. She coughed. O’Bowens held her canteen to her mouth and she drank.
The kitten looked down at Arizona’s leg and shrieked.
“What happened? We’re coming!” Myra reached for the whip, ready to climb down.
“No! Stay there! What if we all get trapped down here? Li’l, be quiet. I --- oh dear. That is bad.” O’Bowens held a few fingers to his mouth.
Arizona let out a groan and coughed. “I --- Peter? What happened?”
“I... I can’t feel my leg.”
“It’s probably better that way,” O’Bowens said, soft and flat, eyes still wide from shock.
“Why? I... let me see.” Arizona tried to sit up.
“No, Ari, don’t look,” Myra called down.
“What!?” Arizona lifted herself on her elbows to look. “That’s ridiculous, I---!”
There was a pause and a horrified expression crossed her face. She was struck by a wave of dizziness. Laying down again, she said, “Yeah... yeah… oh boy, I’m going to start feeling that in a minute.” Her face twisted in an effort to keep the contents of her stomach down.
“Myra, toss that kit to me.”
She dropped the first aid kit, and O'Bowens caught it. Then Myra said to Katy, “See if there is any material nearby that we might make a stretcher out of. We’re all getting out of this valley if I have anything to say about it.”
Arizona raised her arm weakly and patted the chimpanzee on the shoulder.
“Hey… good job... with the whip.” She coughed, and gritted her teeth as a burst of pain shot through her leg. “Aag... gh! Tell me there are... painkillers....”
“Coming right up,” O’Bowens replied softly. “Just hang in there.”
* * *
The trip back was long and --- for Arizona --- painful. But finally they made it back out of the mountains to Mexicasa, where they got her to the local hospital.
The archaeologists gathered in Arizona's room while she recovered, her leg suspended in a cast.
O’Bowens remarked, “Once the CLAW in the area find out we’re still alive, and about the stone, we’ll be in danger. We must leave the country. And find a safe place for you to stay.”
“In a place where she has allies nearby.” Katy grinned, then whispered something in Myra’s ear. Myra nodded.
“What?” Arizona demanded.
Myra picked up the phone. “Operator? Get me Cape Suzette.”