He’d taken less than a dozen strides when he heard a shriek. He couldn’t tell if it had been male or female, but it got his heart pumping faster as he raced through the brush. Vegetation tore at his clothes, leaving scratches on his arms as the wind turned the plants into whips and lashes.
Clint almost collided with Bertie, who was running in fear back toward the shore. Seeing her, fear gripped him. He wished it had been Charlie. Knowing now she was still out there made him all the more fearful.
“What happened?” He grabbed the woman by the arms, who then collapsed against his chest, sobbing. “Bertie, where are the others? Where’s Charlie?”
“It c-came…from out of nowhere!”
“What came? A gator?’
The woman nodded, her body shivering from fear. “We never saw it until it was right there!”
“Did you encroach upon its nest?” he demanded.
She shook her head in bewilderment. “I never saw a nest. That thing charged at us! It went after Charlie!”
“You must have accidentally come across it without realizing what it was, which would explain why the female attacked. Who fired at it?”
He inwardly groaned. He had no idea the woman was packing. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know! She started firing at it and I ran!” She said something else, but the words were lost in the wind. Bending closer to her, Clint asked her to repeat that last part. “Please go find her!”
“I will. Do you know which way the others went?” When Bertie shook her head, Clint felt his fear rise. “Is Maxwell with her?” Another negative. “All right. Go back to the boat and wait there.”
“Where is it?”
He then realized the woman had been running pell-mell, totally lost and without any sense of direction. Only by sheer luck had the two of them intersected. He pointed behind him. “The clearing is straight that way, about fifty or so yards.”
“What if another one of those things shows up?” Her eyes were wide, her pupils dilated. She clutched his shirt, and he noticed she’d lost her equipment somewhere along the way.
“Stay in the pontoon. It can’t get to you if you stay in the boat,” he reassured her. Giving her a little shove, he added, “I’m going after Charlie and the others.”
Bertie took off in the direction he’d noted. Clint stared at where she had emerged. The foliage was trampled, making tracking her flight path easy.
A crack of thunder momentarily deafened him. It was followed by a hard wall of water slamming into the ground. Clint ducked underneath the shelter of a copse of trees, but he was soaked within seconds. He continued on, despite the downpour, knowing that if he delayed too long all signs of Bertie’s tracks would soon be obliterated. Fortunately, the brim of his ball cap kept enough of the rain out of his eyes.
“Charlie!” Cupping his hands around his mouth, he yelled again. “Charlie!”
Faintly from the distance he heard a shriek, then his name. “Clint! Over here! Help me!”
She was somewhere directly ahead.
The saturated ground made going difficult. The mud acted like quicksand, sucking his feet into the gluey soil and slowing his pursuit. He pushed through, his heart hammering in his chest.
A fourth gunshot led him straight to her. Shoving through the undergrowth, he suddenly emerged into an open area. Directly across from him, Charlie was facing down a ten-foot gator. She held her gun pointed at it, using both hands. Hearing him crashing into the marshy space, she glanced up. Her face was white with panic and fear, her brown eyes wide, but her aim was steady.
“Shh!” he hurried to tell her. His eyes were riveted on the reptile, which lay between them. Its mouth was open in a clear, threatening gesture. It hissed at her, but the creature remained still, watching, expectant. “Did you hit it?”
“Only in the leg.” Her voice shook. “It came from out of nowhere!”
He waved a hand to calm her. “It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay. You must have accidentally stumbled close to her nest.”
But the damage had been done. The gator was injured. He could see the blood on its right front leg, but it didn’t appear to be a serious wound. If the gator could still walk on it, the bullet must have either grazed it or passed straight through. Regardless, shooting the gator had complicated matters. Charlie was no longer being chased by a protective mother. She was being threatened by a mother she had shot, and the gator was now out for retaliation.
Clint saw a shift in the reptile’s head. It knew he had come up from behind, and it cast a glance to see if Clint posed a viable threat. He froze in place, keeping his hands visible to show he was unarmed. As he hoped, the gator dismissed him and turned its attention back to Charlie.
“Charlie, put the gun away.”
“Put…the gun…away,” he emphasized in his sternest voice, never taking his eyes off the reptile. “She recognizes it as an object you used to shoot her. It brought her pain, so as long as you point it at her, she feels threatened. Put it away. Slowly.”
Charlie obeyed, sliding the weapon into her pants pocket.
“Now show her your hands are empty.”
She opened her hands and held them out the same way he held his.
“Good.” He studied the animal’s body language. It was more relaxed with the disappearance of the gun, but he knew gators had one-track minds. There was still the matter of Charlie encroaching on her precious eggs. “Charlie, walk this way. Come around, keeping plenty of room between you and the female.” He thumbed the direction.
“What if it charges me again?”
“I’ll handle it if she does.”
The rain was growing more intense again, but Clint was happy to have it. It would help wash away her tracks and her scent.
He kept Charlie in his peripheral vision as she moved sideways. The gator swiveled its head, keeping her in view. Its agitation grew with every passing second. Clint sensed it tensing, preparing to chase her.
Charlie halted. Her gaze shifted from Clint, to the gator, and back.
He thumbed over his shoulder. “Back that way, Bertie is waiting at the pontoon. When I say run, you take off as fast as you can. Got it?”
The gator shifted and turned toward Charlie. Its tail whipped around as it prepared to launch itself toward her. He crouched.
She took off. Seeing its antagonist getting away, the gator lifted itself up off its belly. Clint saw it prepare to go after her and threw himself on top of the reptile.
The gator roared in anger when he body-slammed onto its back. Wrapping his arms and legs around the animal, he held on as the gator barrel rolled. It tried to dislodge him, whipping back and forth. The mud and muck made keeping his grasp on the writhing animal difficult, and he dug his heels into its sides. The gator’s jaws clashed together in its attempt to grab the human clinging to it. It twisted sideways and rolled twice more, using its weight and strength to grind him into the mud. If the ground had been bone dry, he knew he could have suffered worse than scrapes and scratches. The gator could have broken his bones and crushed internal organs. Instead, the sludge absorbed most of the animal’s thrashings.
It paused, panting heavily before it resumed. Clint took the moment and roared at the creature. The gator stiffened. Clint quickly adjusted his grip and shoved his thumbs into the reptile’s armpits. When the animal started to roll again, he roared and squeezed the gator’s chest to the point where the creature couldn’t breathe. He kept the pressure on the reptile until it finally dropped onto its belly.
Carefully, he released his grip and got to his feet. He never took his eyes off the animal, knowing it could unexpectedly swing backwards and try to take a bite out of him. One step, two, four. When he figured there was enough room between him and the gator, Clint took off toward the pontoon. He cleared the trees and found Charlie standing there.
“Why didn’t you go to the pontoon?” he demanded harshly.
She shook her head, her eyes scanning his mud-covered form. “I couldn’t leave you.”
“Damn it, Charlie! When I give you an order—”
She stunned him by grabbing his face and pressing her mouth to his. It was a desperate kiss. A wet kiss cooled by the rain. A grateful kiss because they both had survived the gator’s attack. He wanted to pull her into his embrace and delve further, but this was neither the time nor the place. Taking one of her hands from his cheek, he turned her around, gave her a little shove, and they continued toward the shore.
They didn’t speak as they worked their way through the mire and plants. With the gator left far behind them, there was no longer any need to move as quickly as possible. Clint shortened his strides. Charlie struggled to keep up. She was exhausted. With the immediate threat gone, adrenaline no longer fueled her, and she stumbled through the brush.
They emerged from the strand of Spanish oak to where the pontoon was tethered. Clint stopped and stared at the empty shoreline.
“Why are we stopping?” Charlie bent over, hands on her knees, and gasped for breath.
“This is where I left the boat.”
“Huh?” She looked around. “Are you sure this is where you left it?”
He moved closer to the water and pointed to the ground. “There’s the hole where I’d set the spike. You can even see where the boat rested here on the mud, even though the rain’s filled up the depression.”
“Where could it have gone?” She walked over to stand beside him. Together they stared up and down the stream for sign of the pontoon, in case it had accidentally gotten loose during the passing the storm and floated to another location.
Clint pressed his lips together, his eyes narrowing. “I ran into Bertie and told her to come back here and wait for me while I went searching for you.” He was aware of Charlie staring at him in disbelief.
“Are you thinking she took the boat?”
“Either she did, or someone else.” He glanced over at her. “Where’s Maxwell? Last I saw him, he was tailing you.”
“He went off on his own.”
“Where’s Dibs and Robbie? Did you see them? Do you know which way they went?”
She shook her head. It was clear she was as perplexed as he was.
Rain began pelting them again with larger, harder drops. Clint pulled her back under the trees.
“What are we going to do?” She wrapped her arms around herself to keep from shaking. Like him, she was soaked to the skin.
He reached for his walkie, when his hand encountered air. Clint glanced down to find the phone gone.
No phone. No boat. And no supplies.
“We wait,” he admitted.
“Wait? For help to arrive?”
He sighed. “That, or until I get a better idea.”