Ortiz touched Natalie’s shoulder, startling her. “Miss West, there’s something moving out there.”
She carefully set down her sketches and let him help her to her feet. At the edge of their rocky vantage point, he indicated a thicker grouping of coniferous trees in the distance.
Several bushes directly beneath the pines shook violently, then stilled, as if something exceptionally large had just pushed its way through them. Right in line with the first sighting, another set of bushes shook, and then went still.
Ortiz took her arm and guided her back to her artistic supplies and rucksack. He whispered, “We’d better get out of here.”
Natalie didn’t need him to tell her twice. She snatched up her work, shoved it into the weatherproof portfolio, and followed Ortiz—right on his heels—as he raced down a faint game trail back to camp.
When they burst into the clearing, Ortiz grabbed her elbow as she would have stopped, and dragged her onward. Once at the command tent, he let go. Natalie bent over and supported her upper body, hands on knees, trying to catch her breath, while her guard reported in.
Anders’s voice soon reverberated as he ordered a group of ten men out to investigate, and positioned the others in such a way as to fend off a full-scale attack. Natalie watched and listened with trepidation. She searched the camp, but saw only the Mongolian contingent, who had also crept close to watch and listen. Rubens still had not returned from his hunt. He had another ten military men with him.
The porters crowded into the open-air command tent, murmuring among themselves. One of them uncorked a forbidden bottle of liquor, took a slug and passed it to another.
Anders will go ballistic, Natalie thought, then turned her attention back to the men who had formed a defensive line at the edge of the clearing.
Anders’ position with the remaining nine mercenaries, in front of the scientists and her, looked suspiciously like a last stand. What did the security chief expect to come at them?
Her stomach shuddered at the possibilities. It could be anything from a normal, present-day animal to a prehistoric beast. She suddenly remembered—with sickening dread—Liam’s strained refusal to identify the recent remains of the dinosaur he’d discovered.
Natalie didn’t trust Anders’ men to be any more successful in defending and protecting her than those who’d tried in the past. She ran to the cache of weapons beside the cook tent, picked out a machete and a crossbow, grabbed a dozen bolts, and sped back. The machete hung heavily off her belt as she skidded to a stop at Liam’s side.
Anders turned at her uncle’s loud gasp, and eyed her up and down with a frown.
Natalie met his fierce blue gaze without flinching. “I’m not some bleeding heart who relies on détente, Mr. Anders.” She balanced the crossbow in the crook of her arm and fumbled with the bolts, but managed not to drop any.
His lips quirked. “I can see that.” He strode back to her and quickly demonstrated how to operate the crossbow, then trotted back to the perimeter without a backward glance.
Natalie stuck the extra bolts in her deep cargo pants’ pocket and lifted the weapon to her shoulder. “Piece of cake. Load, thread, nock, cock, shoulder, aim, fire,” she recited, ignoring the useless scholars who watched her as if she had gone insane. “You just stay behind me, Liam.”
Her uncle’s voice wobbled, “Whatever you say, my dear.”
A rumbling on the ground, like a small earthquake, indicated the approach of their mysterious visitor. Shouts went up from the first defensive line Anders had set up about fifty yards from camp.
Natalie couldn’t see what happened through the thickness of the forest, but it sounded bad. If it plowed through trained soldiers, what would it do to them?
A flash of memory made her pause. She turned to the wide-eyed meteorologist behind her. “Peter, run and get me that bottle the porters are passing around. Hurry!”
He looked at her stupidly and didn’t move. The ground jumped under the rumble of approaching percussion strikes.
“Run! Damn it!”
Peter turned on his heel and raced to the tent. He tripped as he returned, but saved the bottle from mishap.
Natalie grabbed it and darted to the nearest fire to pull out a burning stick. She uncorked the bottle and took a big mouthful, just as a prehistoric nightmare charged out of the forest.
The massive animal towered over the group of mercenaries that rushed toward it. Its eyes appeared microscopic next to the massive neck cuff and protruding horns—similar to elephant tusks, except they erupted from its forehead.
Anders and his men, the last line of defense, shot a flight of crossbow bolts, then fell back to reload.
The creature slowed, but the sight of more people seemed to enrage it. It bellowed and bore down on Natalie and the cringing group of scientists. She almost swallowed in terror, but her throat closed up, and she managed to blow the alcohol out over the burning stick.
The resulting blast of flames startled the monster enough to stop its forward motion. It skidded to a halt with almost comical clumsiness.
Natalie took another mouthful and warily inched toward the beast, noting the natural armor of its skin. A few of the mercenaries’ crossbow bolts had stuck in it like tails on a paper donkey. They hadn’t even drawn blood.
She spat out a second burst of flames, and the creature backed up.
Liam shouted, “Heaven save us!”
The mercenaries flanked her as she took another mouthful.
Anders’ hoarse voice grated against her high-strung nerves, “Move it out of camp, Natalie,” he said with fierce command.
She nodded and carefully maneuvered to the side of the animal, where she blew out another breath of flames. The prehistoric beast roared and bucked, then trotted toward the forest. Natalie took another mouthful and followed, but didn’t need to spit again. Instead, she inadvertently swallowed the homemade alcohol, and immediately gagged.
Men clapped each other on the back and cheered, but she could only hand the half empty bottle to Anders, drop the burning branch, and run for the nearest tree to throw up.