Continued from Chapter Two
“Mulder don't move."
That was easy for her to say -- she wasn’t nose-to-nose with a huge, nasty, probably poisonous snake. Mulder held his breath while it explored the air in front of his face with its tongue. It was so close he could see his own panicked expression reflected in its amber eyes.
Its skin was tannish-brown, as far as Mulder could tell with his colorblind vision, and it had diamond-shaped markings along its back. Two diagonal stripes ran from behind its eyes to its upper jaw, just forward of the corners of its mouth. The markings didn’t tell him much; he knew next to nothing about snakes...other than they tended to have sharp fangs and gave him the creeps.
Not that he was *afraid* of them; he just didn’t particularly like them.
His eyes widened when its tail rattled. *Now* he was afraid. Even a neophyte herpetologist knew a rattlesnake was poisonous.
Scully whispered, “Hold perfectly still.”
He heard her gun slide from its holster.
No, no, no, Scully, don’t shoot it!
It was only an inch or two in front of his face! And she was weak from fever and exhaustion, arms shaky, vision blurred--
CLICK! He flinched when he heard the safety released.
She leaned closer, gun held in outstretched hands. Her arms were trembling…badly. He could hear her panting -- quick, shallow, nervous-sounding breaths.
Or maybe that was him.
She repeated, “Don’t move.”
Her gun inched closer still and the snake began to rattle more furiously. It opened its mouth. Two fangs, wet with venom, glistened inside its gaping jaws, millimeters from Mulder’s nose.
Shit, shit, shit.
Scully’s trigger finger slowly squeezed--
BANG! JESUSFUCKINGCHRIST! The gun went off, and the snake’s head exploded. The noise was god-awful. Mulder clapped his hands over his ears, too late to block out the blast. Gunpowder seared his cheek. Bits of snake splattered his face, his clothes, the surrounding rocks. He swiped at his eyes, clawed away scraps of gore, and hoped he wouldn’t vomit.
Scully was saying something to him, but he couldn’t hear a word. His ears were ringing badly from the blast.
The headless reptile dangled from its crevice, bleeding from its neck onto the stone floor.
He yanked it from its hole. “I may be deaf for the rest of my life, but at least we have something to eat now,” he said, unable to hear his own voice.
The snake was eight feet long if it was an inch. He coiled its thick body into a pile between his legs, and then dug into his pocket for his knife.
Scully tapped his arm. Using hand signals, she volunteered to skin and gut the snake. He was tempted to take her up on the offer -- he didn’t relish the idea of slicing and dicing a giant snake -- but Scully looked absolutely drained of energy. She held her gun loosely in her lap, shoulders slumped, eyes shadowed by fatigue and fever.
“I’ll do it,” he said, not certain if she could hear him or not. “You rest.”
He scooted to the edge of the shelter and out into the pouring rain, hauling the headless snake with him. It was too awkward to carry down the steep embankment, so he heaved it into the gully. It hit a ledge about two thirds of the way down, then skidded and rolled to the bottom, where rainwater was chugging through the valley, roiling around rocks, carrying leaves and other debris with it.
He half walked, half slid down the muddy hillside, gathered the carcass and dragged it into the chilly water. Wading up to his knees, he searched for a flat stone to use as a work surface. He quickly located one midway across the stream.
Once the snake was laid out on the stone, he had abso-fucking-lutely no idea what to do next. Oh, sure, he knew the skin had to come off, and there were probably bones that needed to be removed, as well as guts of some sort that should come out. But did snakes have lungs? Intestines? And what about the venom? Where the hell was that located?
Guessing the poison was probably in or near the head, which was now gone, he decided to not worry about it. He rolled the snake onto its back and exposed its belly. Using his knife, he made a shallow cut lengthwise from neck to rattle.
He inserted a finger beneath the skin at the neck and tugged. It was difficult to grasp onto at first, but once he got the hang of it, the skin pulled off easily in one unbroken piece. When he got it stripped down to the tail, he cut it away, rattles and all.
Well, that hadn’t been too difficult.
Now for the messy part. Cutting a deeper slit the entire length of the snake’s belly, he exposed its guts. He plowed the viscera out with his thumb, slopping them into the stream. Bile stung the back of his throat as he shook a stubborn, sticky rope of entrails from his fingers. Unlike Scully, he hated touching the insides of things.
Slicing the meat into six-inch chunks was easier and less messy than the gutting. He rinsed each piece in the stream, cleaning off any blood and unidentified slime. It surprised him how much the sight of the raw meat made his mouth water. There was no way to cook it, of course, but at this point he was too famished to care. And he doubted Scully would be squeamish about eating it either. Hell, he’d seen her eat a live bug once.
The amount of meat was substantial. He needed to find some way to carry it. Leaving it temporarily on the stone, he waded to shore to find an appropriate container or plate.
Ferns? Cedar boughs? Bark? He crossed to a birch tree and, using his knife, cut a vertical slit in its smooth white bark. It pulled easily away from the trunk in a large, rectangular sheet.
Tah-dah! Instant platter. Eat my dust, MacGyver.
He returned to the stream and mounded the meat onto the bark. He estimated he had about ten pounds altogether -- a veritable feast for an Ice Age king and queen.
Carrying it proved more awkward than he’d anticipated. Two steps from the stream and the topmost chunk tumbled onto the ground. He stooped to grab it out of the dirt. Dried leaves and mud clung to its sticky surface.
“Five second rule.” No sense throwing away perfectly good food. He shook off the debris and stuffed it into his mouth.
Jesus, it tasted wonderful, even with the dirt. A little stringy. And bony. But firm and fleshy. Different from anything he’d ever eaten, but in a good way. He carefully extracted two needle-sharp bones from between his teeth and flicked them to the ground.
That’s when he saw it. The distinct imprint of a human foot in the mud beside the stream.
The foot was bare, smaller than his own, but considerably larger than Scully’s, and the little toe was missing. The print was relatively fresh; water filled the impression, but the mud still held its shape despite the downpour.
Mulder glanced over his shoulder and scanned the surrounding woods. The banks of the ravine rose steeply, twenty to thirty feet on either side of the gully. Large old growth evergreens, widely spaced with trunks as big around as train cars, lined the upper rim. The understory was clogged with blowdowns, ferns and large boulders. Plenty of cover for anyone who wanted to hide. Nothing appeared to move on the ridge or in the ravine, but his gut told him he was being watched, and the feeling prickled the back of his neck.
He examined the footprint more carefully. Left foot. About a size nine or ten, men’s. He wondered what happened to the toe. The track pointed downstream, so he followed it and soon discovered two distinct sets of prints, the second slightly smaller than the first, with all ten toes.
The plate of meat was growing heavy. And he was starving. It was still raining hard -- a cold steady deluge that chilled him to the bone. Better eat first and then follow the strangers on a full stomach, he decided.
Turning back toward the shelter, he hiked up the embankment.
At the cave he found Scully asleep, gun cradled in her lap. Dirt streaked her face and pine needles stuck to her hair. The bruise around her eye reminded him of a Rorschach’s inkblot and he was sure he could see the shape of a grim-looking mastodon in its blue-black silhouette.
She stirred at the sound of his voice and her eyelids fluttered open. Evidently her hearing was okay. His was slowly returning, too, although noises, including his own voice, still sounded tinny and a million miles away.
“Let me help.” She reached for the platter and set it on her lap.
Hands now free, he eased into the shallow cave, ass end first. It was a cozy fit with the two of them wedged side-by-side.
“You’re freezing.” She wiped water from his dripping chin.
“Wanna warm me?” he asked through chattering teeth. He leaned more heavily into her and exaggerated his shivering. Water rained from his hair onto her jacket.
“Mulder!” She gave him a gentle nudge with her elbow. “You’re soaking wet.”
True. Water was pooling uncomfortably beneath him. Beneath them both.
“Eat up. It’s good,” he said, hoping to divert her attention from the growing wet spot.
“You started without me?”
“Just a sample.”
She selected a chunk and bit into it.
“Mmm. Y’right. S’good.”
“Watch out for bones.” He helped himself to a large portion.
They ate for several minutes without speaking, eager to fill their empty bellies. The mound dwindled faster than Mulder would have guessed. Scully ate as ravenously as he did, matching him piece for piece. Soon, more than half the meat was gone, replaced by a stack of delicate rib bones.
She leaned back with a satisfied moan, and proceeded to lick her fingers clean, one at a time. He watched her, hypnotized by the way each dainty finger disappeared into the circle of her lips. Jesus, she had no idea how sexy she looked. Hair tousled, cheeks flushed, a scrap of raw snake stuck to her chin. It was all he could do to stop himself from grabbing her and licking that lucky piece of meat right off her--
Poised to swoop in like a Pleistocene buzzard on a fresh mastodon carcass, he felt himself growing hard. He was hyper-aware of every move she was making, every breath she was breathing, the way her tongue was swirling seductively around her left thumb. Imagining that pretty little tongue licking snake slime from his own fingers...oh...God... When she slid her middle finger deeply into her mouth, he almost groaned out loud.
She stopped mid-lick to look over at him. As if reading his mind, she sloooowly withdrew her finger from her mouth. It made a delightful kissing noise when it popped free.
Was she coming on to him?
“Did you swallow a, uh, bone, Mulder?” she asked, her tone sultry.Okay, *that* was definitely a come on. She must have noticed the boner in his pants was pressing uncomfortably against his zipper. He wanted like hell to readjust himself. Fuck, he wanted *her* to readjust him.
Mouth agape, he racked his brain for a smart-ass retort, but came up blank. Scully had turned the tables on him, upsetting the natural order of their relationship. *He* was supposed to lob the innuendoes and then she was supposed to ignore them. After five years, a precedent had been set, a pattern had been established. This unexpected role reversal made him wonder if there was something in the prehistoric air affecting her, or him, or both of them.
Maybe it was the snake meat.
“I thought you might have a...” -- Scully selected a slender snake rib from the pile of bones and held it up for him to see -- “caught in your throat.” She used the flat edge of the bone to trace a tickling path over his bobbing Adam’s apple.
She *was* flirting with him.
Or was he just imagining it?
Shit. He had no fucking idea.
Somewhere he’d read that the human male thinks about sex approximately once every five minutes. At the time, he thought the estimate sounded a bit conservative, but he’d been willing to let it go. Hell, he was younger then, and averages were just averages. Besides, someone had to be on the upper end of the scale to balance out all those politically correct Men of the ‘90s who never, ever had sexual fantasies about the women they worked with.
Okay, big deal if he *occasionally* pictured Scully...uh...how could he put this delicately? Fucking him blind? Was it really so wrong?
Yes, yes, he understood the evils of sexual harassment, he really did; he’d been to the seminars, had the sensitivity training. But come on, his feelings for Scully went waaaay beyond simple lust. For chrissake, he *loved* h--
Don’t go there, Mulder, do *not* go there, he told himself. She is *not* interested in you that way. Just concentrate on something unsexy and get past this.
Leonard Betts’ head.
Nope, nope and nope. This wasn’t helping.
Okay, bring out the big guns: Bill Scully, Jr. defending his sister’s honor by pounding the crap out of her hound dog partner.
Bingo. Worked like a charm every time.
Ardor diminishing, Mulder signaled to Scully that she had some food on her chin. “You’ve...uh...”
“Oh, thanks.” She scrubbed her face with a fingertip. “That was delicious. I’m full.”
“Mm. Me, too.” He selected a bone from the pile and used it to pick meat from between his teeth. “Just like Thanksgiving. All we need now are a couple of La-Z-Boys and a football game.”
She slid the platter of leftovers to the front of the shelter, out of the way of their feet. “No TV, no remote, no cable -- you’re going to slip into catatonic shock. You realize that, don’t you?”
“I miss my VCR already.” Which reminded him, “I’m gonna have a hell of an overdue triple-X bill when I get back.”
“Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?”
“No more than usual.” Would Skinner notice if he added the cost of the videos to their expense account? Yeah, he probably would since he’d never signed the 302 in the first place. Their trip to Hill Air Force Base was unauthorized. “Who’s your favorite redheaded porn star, Scully?”
She arched an eyebrow at him, but said nothing.
“Sorry. My five minutes were up.”
The other eyebrow rose, giving her a “what the hell does that mean?” look.
“Never mind.” He sighed, feeling full and content.
They listened to the rain for a minute or two without speaking. Lightning flashed in the east and Mulder silently counted the seconds between the flash and the rumble of thunder -- a game he and Sam used to play. They would sit on the porch at Quonochontaug, estimating the distance of an approaching storm as thunderclouds, gray as the sea, plowed northward along the coastline, bringing the smell of rainwater and the promise of cooler air. Eight-one-thousand, nine-one-thousand, ten-one-thousand...a soft rumble would ricochet against the shore. Then when the storm finally closed in, Sam snuggled beneath his arm. Goosebumps dotted her bare arms and legs, and she shivered against him, insisting she was chilly, not scared. But he wasn’t fooled. She was just putting on a show of bravery, the way she always did whenever she wanted to prove she was as courageous as any boy.
A lot like Scully.
Instinctively he wrapped an arm around Scully. To his surprise and delight, she didn’t shrug him off, but settled comfortably against him.
Another flash of lightning brightened the sky. One-one-thousand, two-one--
“Mulder, how are we going to get home?”
He had no answer. For all he knew, they might be stuck here permanently. “I don’t know.”
She turned to look up at him. “We can’t give up. We have to try *something.* ”
“I haven’t given up. I just don’t have any useful suggestions right now.”
More lightning. The storm seemed to be circling around.
“We need to go back to the field where we first arrived,” she said, sounding determined.
“To do what?”
“Wait for the time portal to reopen.”
“How long do we wait, Scully? There may not be a portal. Ever.” He knew she didn’t want to hear this. “We have to consider the possibility we may never get back.”
“I won’t accept that. I can’t.” She targeted him with angry eyes. “Can you?”
“I don’t know that we have a choice.” He didn’t want to fight with her. They needed to work on this together. “I saw some footprints,” he said, trying to redirect the conversation.
“Yes. Down by the stream. When I was cutting up the snake.”
“Who do you think they belong to?” She looked hopeful.
Probably not a rescue party, he thought. “You took anthropology in college. You tell me. What do you remember about early human groups in North America?”
She frowned and thought for a minute. “The oldest reliably-dated human remains were only about 11,500 radiocarbon years old...that’s 13,350 calendar years.”
“What were the people like? Were they friendly?”
“No one knows for sure. The fossil records indicate they were nomadic, living in familial groups of about fifty men, women and children. They were artisans and skilled big-game hunters. They followed migrating animals, like mastodons and mammoths, camels, peccaries, stag-moose, musk-oxen...you can stop me at any time, Mulder.”
“Sounds like they had plenty to eat.”
“Mm. For a while. A major megafaunal extinction occurred around 11,400 B.P.”
That sounded ominous. “Caused by what?”
“There are several theories. Some scientists believe early humans hunted the animals to extinction. Others claim that a catastrophic climactic event killed them. A third theory posits that humans brought dogs, birds and other animals with them to the New World, and these Old World animals carried viruses that may have killed or weakened American populations, which had no immunity to the new pathogens. Most likely, the extinction was the result of a combination of stressors.”
“Something extraterrestrial perhaps?”
A laugh chuffed from her nose. “You would ask that, wouldn’t you?”
He shrugged. “Asteroids are extraterrestrial.”
“Is that what you were thinking?”
“Nah,” he admitted. He suddenly felt very tired. Three days and two nights without sleep were catching up with him. “I was thinking more along the lines of visitors from outer space, planetary invasion, the usual stuff. Although...” -- he pointed to the rain and wind outside the shelter -- “maybe the explanation is Biblical. This is looking a lot like Noah’s flood.”
“Let’s not go there, Mulder.” She yawned and rested her head against his shoulder. “We just ate the serpent in this particular Garden of Eden. I hate to think what ramifications there might be in that.”
Her yawn sparked one of his own. “Dining on the symbolic cause of The Fall. That can’t be good.” He leaned his head back against the rocks and closed his eyes. “How are you feeling?” he asked, not really expecting an honest answer.
He brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers, surreptitiously checking for fever. Her skin felt cooler. Maybe getting some food into her had helped.
She folded his hand beneath her own. “I’m fine, Mulder. Really.”
Wrapped by the warmth of her palm, he let his hand lie in her lap.
The two of them were safe for now, their bellies full. It was as good a time as any to catch forty winks.
* * *
“Let’s shoot it,” Bill, Jr. says, tossing the garter snake onto the ground and aiming his BB gun.
Dana is tempted. She loves her new BB gun -- a birthday gift from her brothers. But... “Dad said we’re only supposed to shoot cans, Bill.”
“Well, Dad’s not here, Miss Goody Two Shoes.”
True, Ahab isn’t with them.
And Dana hates to be called Miss Goody Two Shoes.
Bill, Jr. looms over her left shoulder and chants in her ear, “Dana’s a chicken...Dana’s a chick--”
“I am not.” She is a little afraid to disobey her father, but she’s not afraid to shoot the snake.
Charlie stands off to the side, a big grin on his freckled face. He points his own BB gun at the snake. “Come on, Dane...SHOOT!”
The boys fire one shot after another as the snake side-winds, eluding the hailstorm of their BBs. Dana is certain she can hit it. She’s a good shot already, as good as her brothers. Better, in fact. She hit five cans out of six! Charlie hit only two. The moving snake is more of a challenge, but she plans to show Bill she’s not a chicken or a Miss Goody Two Shoes. Closing one eye, she takes aim. Her heart pounds with excitement. The snake slithers through the autumn leaves, and Dana pulls the trigger. POW!
Delight skates up her arms when the gun pops and she sees the snake knocked forward by the impact of her BB. A hit! Dead center!
“You got it! You got it!” Charlie’s face lights up with admiration. Even Bill, Jr. looks impressed.
The three children move closer to inspect the injured animal. Snapped practically in half, it continues to squirm, blood oozing from its wound.
Dana kneels and picks it up. It’s moving very slowly now. Soon it just hangs limply in her hands. She gives it a little shake. Then a gentle squeeze. A more frantic shake. Nothing rouses it. Is it dead? She didn’t mean for it to die.
“Starbuck, I warned you. You weren’t supposed to shoot at anything but cans.” Ahab is sitting at the head of the dinner table, where the family has gathered to eat their supper. His expression is stern and he stares directly at his youngest daughter. She knows he is ashamed of her.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kill it.” She looks down at her dinner plate. Her tears are unstoppable. She wants to put life back into the dead snake, but already her brothers have buried it in the woods and now her father is mad and she can’t stop crying. She is to blame for killing the snake and it’s going to be dead forever--
“Who are the men who would create a life whose only hope was to die?” Dana hears herself ask, but her plate has disappeared and she is no longer at the dinner table. She is a grown woman, standing in front of a child’s coffin. The casket is for Emily, her beloved, lost daughter.
Mulder stands beside her. He has brought flowers for her dead child -- a pretty white bouquet, fragile and pale. “I don’t know,” he answers. “But that you found her and you had a chance to love her...then, maybe she was meant for that too.”
A chance to give a mother’s love to a child. Such a brief blessing and all the more painful because of its brevity. Does Mulder understand how much her heart is breaking over the loss of Emily?
She turns away from the coffin to tell him she feels bereft, and is surprised to find he is wearing a flower tucked behind his ear. His suit and tie have vanished; he wears black jeans and hiking boots, and a dead snake is looped around his neck, dangling over his shoulders onto his bare chest.
“Touch it,” he says. His voice floats past her ears like cottonwood seed on a spring breeze. Puffy clouds slink across a cornflower-blue sky high above his head, while white field flowers nod at his feet. The air smells like fresh grass and cherry blossoms.
And him. Masculine. Aroused.
She is suddenly aware that her clothes have disappeared and she stands completely naked in front of him. Her partner...oh, God. Embarrassment pounds in her veins, while at the same time, desire tickles her inner thighs, her breastbone, the tips of her breasts. She yearns to touch the snake, and recognizes the urge is Freudian and vaguely inappropriate. Even so...
She reaches for it. Tentatively strokes its head.
Its amber eyes open and she knows this is going too far. She is crossing a line.
“Are you hungry, Scully?” Mulder asks. Concern has etched shadows into his brow.
She realizes she is ravenous.
The snake stretches forward and prods her palm with its nose. She can’t eat it alive, can she?
Mulder whispers, “Taste it,” and her doubts evaporate at the sound of his voice. Grasping the snake behind its head, she raises it to her lips, opens her mouth, accepts Mulder’s gift. The snake glides into her, over her tongue to the back of her throat. It tastes earthy. The texture is surprisingly dry and smooth.
It slips past her throat more easily than she would have guessed, considering its size. It feels thick and warm in her neck. She doesn’t gag as it wriggles downward toward her belly.
“You okay?” Mulder asks.
She nods. The serpent now rests in her stomach. She feels deliciously sated and inexplicably happy. Mulder strokes her face and smiles at her. He appears pleased. Satisfied that she is satisfied.
“We did it, Scully.” He points to her stomach.
Her naked belly has grown large. Her skin is stretched tightly across the hard expanse of her abdomen. Mulder strokes the pregnant mound. She feels something move inside her beneath his palm. A baby’s kick? Or the uncoiling of a snake?
“I’m scared, Mulder.”
He nuzzles her neck. “Of what?”
Hot liquid floods her inner thighs and a painful cramp sizzles in her womb. “Mulder?”
In the blink of an eye, she is lying on a hospital bed. The room is familiar. Calumet Mercy Hospital. Chicago. Last week. Only it had been Mulder strapped to the bed rails that time, not her. The Pincus case. A monster that hid in the light.
He is dressed in scrubs and latex gloves. A surgical mask covers the lower half of his face. He stands at the foot of her bed. She feels him grip her ankles, part her legs.
“You have to push, Scully.”
No, no, no. This can’t be happening. She can’t be pregnant. She is unable to have children. Another stab of pain twists her insides.
“Push, Scully! It’s up to you.”
She bears down, unable to stop herself. Oh, God, oh, God, the pain is awful. She can feel herself stretched to the point of tearing as something forces itself from between her legs. The mound of her belly blocks her view. All she can see is the top of Mulder’s bowed head as he struggles to help her deliver her child.
Suddenly the pain is gone. Mulder looks up, eyes wide with tears. Not tears of joy. He is frightened. Oh, Jesus. Please, no.
“I’m sorry.” His mask puffs in and out against his face as he pants for breath.
She tries to sit up, but the restraints hold her back. “What is it, Mulder?”
His head wags with pity.
“What *is* it?”
“I warned you. You weren’t supposed to shoot at anything but cans.” He stands straighter and places her baby onto her now-flat belly, only it isn’t a baby, just as she knew it wouldn’t be, knew it couldn’t be. It’s the dead, headless snake. Not the little one she killed with her BB gun, but the big Pleistocene one she shot in the cave.
“But I *had* to shoot it, Mulder. It was going to kill you. I was trying to save your life!”
Mulder tugs the mask from his face, and she sees he is no longer Mulder. He is Ahab.
“You made a bad choice, Starbuck.”
He frowns, turns his back, and walks to the window. His shoulders are broad and stiff. Full of authority and expectation. He draws the curtains back, raises the blinds. Outside is a valley with a silver river winding through it, and on the banks of the river are herds of unfamiliar animals. Saber-toothed cats, camels, giant mastodons.
Ahab turns. And he has become Mulder once again.
“There’s no going back, Scully.”
“There *has* to be!” She struggles against her bonds. The snake slips off her belly and rolls to the floor. “There has to be...there has to be...”
* * *
“There has to--” Scully’s eyes flew open and she fought to sit upright. Panting, sweat slicking her back, her neck, the palms of her hands, she tried to get her bearings. Restraints no longer bound her wrists. The hospital bed was gone. She was in the rock shelter. Mulder was dozing beside her.
A nightmare. She’d had a nightmare. Thank God. None of it was real...except maybe the part about eating the snake. In a way. A very Freudian way. She eyeballed the leftover meat, then kicked it. Bones, bark and meat tumbled out of the cave.
Outside in the ravine the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. Evergreen boughs, ferns, moss-covered stones -- everything glistened. Water continued to drip from the upper canopy, slapping the lower branches with an erratic rat-a-tat. Leaning forward to inspect the sky, she squinted against the glare. The west was clear and pale blue, while the east remained dark with clouds. Down in the gully, steam rose from the forest floor as the sun heated the sodden ground.
Scully checked her watch. Four-thirty-four. She’d been asleep for more than six hours, and felt better for it. Her headache was gone and it seemed her fever had broken.
Mulder stirred beside her, but didn’t awaken. This didn’t surprise her. He’d been without sleep for three days.
His clothes were still saturated and hers weren’t much drier. She felt sticky and unclean, and wished she could take a hot shower. Glancing at Mulder’s feet, she noticed his boots were soaked. Better get them off him and set them out in the sun to dry.
She managed to unlace and gently pull them from his feet without waking him. Deciding to remove his sopping socks while she was at it, she peeled them from his feet one at a time, and found his toes were wrinkled from being wet so long. She placed her palm along the sole of his left foot, testing the temperature of his skin. He felt damp, but warm.
He sighed in his sleep when she patted his pruney toes.
“I’ll be right back,” she whispered, intending to climb down to the stream to wash up after setting his footwear out to dry. On an impulse, however, she paused before leaving to stroke his unshaved cheek. His two-day stubble felt prickly against her palm, and it made her realize that he would have a full beard in just a matter of days.
She’d never seen him with a beard before.
She tried to picture him with his chin and cheeks buried behind a thick layer of whiskers. Unexpectedly, the image caused her to shiver with desire.
The Pleistocene air must be making her crazy. On the job, even during off hours, she was usually able to ignore Mulder’s physical appeal. Usually. But here in this primeval place, she found herself tantalized by his masculinity. His beard, his height, his weight, the size of his hands, the thickness of his fingers...and just look at those gorgeous feet! Damn it, everything about him seemed to ooze sexuality. All of his manly attributes were conspiring to make her feel, well...horny, to put it bluntly. The depth of his voice, the smell of his sweat, the swell of his Adam’s apple, not to mention the bulge--
What the hell was wrong with her?
Must be the snake meat.
Determined to put temptation behind her, she grabbed his socks and shoes, and scooted out of the shelter.
The sunshine felt good on her face and the air smelled earthy after the rain, like Shitake mushrooms and Christmas trees rolled into one delicious natural perfume. She placed Mulder’s boots in a sunny spot and laid his socks out to dry on the stone overhang. Then she carefully picked her way to the bottom of the ravine, being watchful of slippery stones.
Down in the gully, she took a moment to inspect her surroundings. Mulder had mentioned seeing footprints, but she saw no sign of them. Even his tracks seemed to have been washed away by the rain.
She glanced back at the cave where he was sleeping, hidden in the shadows. His boots, perched on a mossy, sun-drenched boulder, and his fluttering socks assured her she wasn’t the only living human being left on the entire planet. It was easy to feel alone in this place. And powerless. The world had become gargantuan in the blink of an eye, with its enormous trees, oversized animals, and danger lurking around every corner.
How long could they survive here?
She wandered upstream a short distance, searching for a spot where the water ran deep enough to take a bath. Eventually she came to a fallen log, which had dammed the stream, creating a wide pool. Mist floated above its inky surface, giving the scene a fairytale feel and reminding her of legendary places like Camelot or Eden.
The ravine rose forty feet or more on either side of the stream, banked at a steep angle, craggy with stone and speckled with vegetation. Wild orchids, curly-leafed ferns, emerald-green groundcovers dotted with diminutive, star-shaped blossoms grew on and between the slate-gray ledges. Massive tree roots ran vein-like down the near-vertical embankments, questing for water in the lowlands. The trees themselves guarded the upper banks like giant gnarled soldiers. Sunlight dripped between their splayed fingers to puddle like molten gold on the forest floor.
Woodland animals chittered angrily in the branches overhead, making Scully feel she was an unwelcome trespasser. All around, birds screeched -- high-pitched, frantic calls. A desperate, anxious sound. They ballyhooed their territories, extolled their genetic virtues, prepared to drive out unwanted interlopers.
The birdcalls prickled her scalp as she stepped to the edge of the pool. She quickly stripped off her coat and draped it over a nearby boulder. Wanting to give herself a thorough washing, including her hair, she removed her turtleneck and her black camisole, and laid them both neatly on top of her coat. The idea of putting the soiled clothes back on after her bath was not a pleasant one, but she was thankful she’d worn several layers. These clothes might have to last a long while, in all sorts of weather.
She crouched to untie her boots. A wet knot in her laces stalled her for a minute, but she eventually was able to pick it loose. She stood again and toed off her boots and then removed her socks. Lastly, she unbuckled her belt and slid her pants from her legs, adding them to the pile with her gun, which she balanced on the very top.
It felt strange to be standing in the forest wearing nothing but bra and panties, especially since she’d decided to take Mulder’s advice literally, and put on something “black and sexy” for their night of funky B&E. Her black silk underwear was a brand new set. Not exactly utilitarian. Made for show more than for wear and tear. What had she been thinking?
Kneeling at the edge of the small pool, she dipped her hand into the water. It was startlingly cold -- as icy as if it had just trickled off the Wisconsinan glacier.
Well, maybe it had, she realized.
She drank from her cupped hands. The water tasted sweet and slightly metallic, and was ice cream-headache cold. A long-legged beetle skated quickly out of her way when she began to wash. Bill used to call insects like these Jesus Bugs, because they were able to walk on water. One time when their mom overheard him using the name she grounded him for a week, which delighted Missy no end. She called him “Bill the Blasphemer” for months afterward.
Wishing for a bar of soap, she scrubbed her face and neck with her palms. Then she leaned forward, dipped the crown of her head into the pool, and wetted her hair. Too late she realized she hadn’t thought to bring Mulder’s comb with her.
Water streamed past her ears, preventing her from hearing the approach of footsteps, until a twig snapped behind her.
Twisting to look over her shoulder, she discovered two men standing about an arm’s length away, blocking her access to her gun. They had dun-colored eyes set in deeply tanned faces, long corkscrewing beards and dark flyaway hair that fell well below their shoulders. They wore animal skin garments wrapped around their waists and fur capes hung across their muscular shoulders. Each carried a spear and a hide sack. Bone jewelry decorated their ears, necks and upper arms, which were tattooed with dark, geometric patterns.
One man, the closest one, was taller than the other by several inches. He was missing a toe on his left foot, and ropey scars scissored up his left leg from his damaged foot to his upper thigh. She guessed they were from animal bites, healed years ago. His forearm was scarred, too. And his face. His left cheek and chin were disfigured by two parallel slashes that ran from his eye to his jaw. Considering the extent of his injuries, it was a wonder he had survived.
Both men sniffed the air, their nostrils flaring as they breathed in her scent. The scarred man stepped closer, near enough to jab her bare upper arm with the point of his finger. The poke was so hard it knocked her back on her haunches.
He growled something to the smaller man, who smiled. Their proximity set her heart hammering and she chided herself for putting herself at risk this way.
“Li-chi tse-gah!” shouted the scarred man, startling her
“Li-chi,” the smaller man repeated, more softly.
They moved in, crowding her. She wanted to rise up but thought they might mistake any sudden move on her part as a threat, so she hunkered low and hoped like hell they didn’t want to harm her.
The scarred man reached for her again, and it took all her willpower not to duck out from under his hand. He patted her hair, his touch tentative, curious. “Li-chi,” he repeated, this time in a whisper. Combing his fingers through her hair, he suddenly laughed out loud, a harsh, gritty sound that crackled from his throat. The other man laughed, too, then stuttered a few words and pointed at her breasts.
Bending low for a closer look, the scarred man studied her black bra. He stroked the fabric, running his index finger down one strap. He hooked his finger behind the silky cup, tested its smoothness by rubbing it between his finger and thumb.
She wasn’t sure if that was a word or a sigh.
When he suddenly prodded her breast, she slapped his hand.
“Don’t,” she warned.
He drew back and began jabbering at her, his tone angry and maybe a little frightened. The other man watched, poised to run or stay, depending on what happened next.
She realized this was probably her best opportunity to go for her weapon. Springing to her feet, she tried to lunge past the scarred man. His arm shot out, blocking her. Lightning fast, he grabbed her hair and yanked, bringing her up short and then forcing her to her knees. Both men were yammering now.
Damn it, he was dragging her away from the pool.
She filled her lungs and screamed as loudly as she could.
* * *
“Scully?” Mulder blinked awake. Had she called out to him or was it just a dream? She wasn’t in the shelter, that much was obvious. He sat up and scrubbed sleep from his eyes with the heels of hands.
Where were his boots?
Bright sunshine jabbed his eyes when he slid from the cave to locate Scully. He squinted against the glare and quickly found his boots and socks, but Scully was nowhere to be seen. Touching one of the socks, he discovered it was still sopping wet, which meant she hadn’t been gone long.
“Scully?” he shouted, only to hear his own voice echo back to him. “Sculleeee!”
There was no answer. Evidently she hadn’t just ducked behind a bush to pee. His heart began to race as all manner of irrational fears zigzagged through his mind.
He pulled on his boots, leaving the socks behind and not bothering to tie his laces. Which direction had she gone? And why the hell had she gone alone? He scrambled down the embankment.
At the bottom her footprints led downstream and he followed them at a jog. When he spotted two additional sets of prints alongside hers -- one with a missing toe -- he broke into a full run.
“Scully? Where are you? Sculleee!” He bulldozed through a patch of waist-high ferns only to be stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of her black, silk camisole lying on a boulder.
Blood roared in his ears and his legs felt like rubber as he lurched toward it. Fuck, fuck. He grabbed it and hugged it to his chest while he tried to make sense of what might have happened here. Her tracks, now barefoot, and the strangers’clearly showed signs of a struggle.
Find her...find her...find her...
The footprints led further downstream, where the sides of the ravine were too steep to climb. That meant Scully and the two men would have to stick close to the stream, at least until the land flattened out. But there were so many places to hide. Trees, shrubs, boulders, crevices.
“Sculleee!” Please, please answer.
In the distance he heard her faint yell. “Mulder!”
He aimed for her voice and ran for all he was worth.
Continued in Chapter Four
(Happy birthday, Jen, my May Day twin. This chapter is dedicated to you.)
See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms.