Gonzalo Xoan de Alcantara rode slowly through the peculiar landscape, unlike anything he had seen in the Old World or the New. He and his very unhappy horse were trying to work their way onto higher ground, low hills glimpsed beyond the tangled growth. They were surrounded by swampy forests of towering ferns, and what looked like fir trees, but weren't. The ground was sticky green mud, hard going for his tired palomino stallion. Even worse, the air itself was sticky; hot, humid, and thick with the stench of rotting vegetation along with other, stranger scents that made his horse snort nervously. Sometimes the long-suffering beast would find something edible enough to nibble at amongst the odd plants, but Gonzalo could feel the hide had grown taut against its ribs. There just wasn't any proper grass to be found in this dismal realm. Still, the proud stallion seemed like it wanted to live, and so it adapted. He knew he would have to adapt too, learn the ways of this inhospitable country if he wanted to survive.
He often wondered if he might have died without realizing it during the inexplicable event that had brought him here. Being a Christian man who had sinned most grievously, Gonzalo thought he must be in Purgatory, or perhaps even Hell itself: The terrifyingly enormous dragons, unnaturally large insects, and other seemingly demonic creatures that roamed these sultry jungles certainly lent credence to the theory. Just the weird cries and calls that echoed through the jungle were enough to make a grown man tremble in fear, the evil cacophony of the devil's minions. Surely, the Lord was punishing Hernando de Soto and his followers for their cruelty toward man and beast. Gonzalo had grown disgusted with de Soto 's inhumanity, and had been making plans to desert his band as they murdered and raped their way deeper into the New World. He had hoped to make his way to Mexico, and join the priesthood there to atone for his part in de Soto 's evils. Now he doubted he would ever have that chance.
The unexpected advent of the strange event that swept them away to this hellish place had provided the distraction he had needed to make his break. Perhaps de Soto would think him lost in the tumult, perhaps that son of a jackal was on his trail this very moment; it was hard to worry about it much when there were so many other dangers present. Gonzalo kept an open mind. Either he was alive and would continue living until some dragon claimed him, or he was already dead and suffering the Lord's wrath. Such an inexplicable force could only be an act of God. It didn't really matter now. He was here, wherever here was. He prayed daily for forgiveness for the innocent blood he had spilled, and promised to somehow atone for his grievous sins.
The stallion stepped into a deeper patch of muck and began to struggle. Gonzalo pitied the creature and dismounted, leading the exhausted horse carefully back onto more solid ground. Gonzalo trudged on, his boots squelching through the green mud, looking for an exit from the marshy jungle. After a while, he saw a sight that made his heart leap with joy: An opening in the dense wall of vegetation leading out to a sun-drenched sandy hillside. At last, he and his horse could escape from their fetid prison! Soon, they stood blinking under the light of the early afternoon sun, their eyes having grown accustomed to the jungle's green dimness. Much relieved, they walked comfortably across an open area, the ground a mix of coarse sand and pebbles. They were on an easy path which followed along the feet of a range of low hills bordering the swamplands.
An eerie cry emerged from the vegetation, not far from where they had just exited. Gonzalo quickly determined it would be best to put some distance between themselves and that jungle, lest the horrid creatures within decide to chase them down on open ground. They had been very lucky to survive their time in that foul smelling bog. They moved away in a gentle trot, which was as fast as either of them could manage after the day's long slog. Reaching the bottom of the nearest hill, Gonzalo led his horse upward at a shallow angle, climbing in a northeasterly direction that would eventually bring them to the top of the wall of hills.
It was fairly easy going, and they were quickly nearing the range's rolling summit. Gonzalo wondered what may lie beyond, praying that it would not be another swampy jungle! He and his horse both breathed deeply, enjoying a gentle breeze out of the north. The air up here was still filled with the heady scents of strange plants, but it was fresher and cooler. Perhaps they weren't actually in Hell after all, but Gonzalo kept a keen eye out for danger anyway. A new landscape meant new creatures, and if they were anything like the jungle's terrifying denizens they would be far larger, and more dangerous than anything he had ever beheld in his past travels, dwarfing even the bull elephant that had charged him in Africa. He recalled maps he had seen with chimerical beasts painted along the edges. Everyone knew they were just the artists enjoying a bit of fancy, since they really didn't know what lay beyond. "Here be monsters!" they always warned. Gonzalo wondered if he would ever have the chance to tell them they had been right.
Coming over a low hill, Gonzalo beheld an unexpected sight: A man hanging upside down from a tree limb. The fellow was English, perhaps, although his face was flushed a purplish-red from his uncomfortable position. A rough rope sling wrapped tightly around the left ankle held the man in the air, his head bobbing a good four feet above the ground. He had been caught in some kind of a snare. A curved sword lay on the ground nearby, gleaming in the bright afternoon light. It had apparently slipped free from its scabbard when it was turned upside-down, and had landed tantalizingly just out of reach of the hanged man.
Gonzalo's horse snorted, also surprised by the odd scene. The hanged man's eyes opened, blue-gray irises and bloated pupils floating in blood-saturated red.
"Please," the man croaked. "Help me down." He was speaking English.
It had been a number of years since Gonzalo had used that crude islander tongue, not since his time serving as a guard for the Spanish ambassador in the English court. Cold, rainy, stinking England was now the second worse place he had ever been, his current situation having taken first prize by some small margin. The English were by no means friends, but as a Christian, a true Christian, unlike those sons of goats he had parted ways with, he knew he couldn't leave the poor fellow to such a slow and painful death. Moreover, this might be a test from God to see if he would be merciful to a potential enemy. After a moment of concentration, the foreign words came back to him. Gonzalo cleared his throat, he had not had cause to use his voice for many long days.
"May I first ask, who are you, sir?" he called out politely. That seemed a reasonable question before freeing the fellow. The hanged man struggled to twist his body around to get a better look at Gonzalo.
"I'm Corporal Nate Tucker, US Army Cavalry, from Texas. This here deer trap got me last night. I don't think I can take it much longer. Please, I'm begging you, cut me down!"
Gonzalo didn't quite catch all of that, but he was pretty sure Corporal Nate Tucker claimed he was a soldier in an army. Hopefully he would prove to be a true soldier, a man of honor, not a roving butcher as de Soto had been.
Gonzalo tied his horse carefully to a low, thorny branch. Usually the stallion could be trusted not to run off, but even a seasoned and battle-trained mount such as this might lose courage at the approach of a lizard-demon! He carefully scanned the area to make sure there were no further traps. Assured of his own safety, Gonzalo took hold of the soldier's midriff, and lifted him a few inches to take the pressure off. This caused the man to gasp, and go limp. Just as well, Gonzalo preferred him to be unconscious for the time being. He used his antler-handled skinning knife to cut the hanging rope, then eased his burden to the ground as gently as he could. This was no easy task. The soldier outweighed him by a good forty pounds, a remarkably large and well-fed person!
"Holy Mother of God! You are a heavy one, Corporal Nate Tucker!" Gonzalo swore aloud, hoping the Lord would forgive him for his unfortunate exclamation. He feared that from his current, sinful state, he had a long way to go before he could be possibly accepted as a priest, even in the half-pagan churches of the Mexican wilds. Grunting some more, he did his best not to drop his charge on his head, thus adding further injury.
Once he had placed the unconscious man safely on the ground, Gonzalo went to work on the rope still twined tightly around his ankle, being careful not to cut too deep. Luckily, the soldier's skin was protected by sturdy leather boots, with dark blue trousers made of very heavy cloth tucked into them. A quick glance at the rest of him showed gold buttons on coat of the same color and firm weave as the trousers. The fine-looking, but functional riding wear of a very successful soldier! Gonzalo was most impressed. Apparently he was rescuing a high ranking officer; only a man such as that could afford this kind of quality. Gonzalo began to work the boot off, turning his face up toward the breeze to escape the unpleasant odor emanating from within.
He hoped he was in time. He didn't relish having to cut a gangrenous foot off. He had seen a surgeon perform that operation after a battle once, and knew it to be a grisly task. Gonzalo massaged the calf for a few minutes, then carefully worked his way down to the foot, helping blood to slowly flow back into it. The soldier moaned, and he whispered a quick prayer to the Lord that He be merciful, and keep the poor fellow from waking up just yet. The returning blood would feel like the piercing of a thousand thorns. Now, rubbing the foot gently, he could see a bit of color returning to the ghostly white flesh. The foot reeked due to a long separation from air and clean water, but it was a normal man-stink, not the rancid stench of spoiled flesh. Gonzalo moved the toes around to increase the blood flow to those extremities. He looked up at the too-blue sky and spoke aloud in his native Spanish.
"Am I doing right by this unfortunate placed in my path, dear Lord? If I had any oil I would anoint him with it, as Mary of Bethany did for Your only son. Please, Lord, help this man recover fully from his trial, I, Your willing servant, most humbly pray."
After a while, Gonzalo could see the foot had returned to a nearly normal color. It would likely be sore, and difficult to walk on for a few days, but it was intact. The soldier would not end up a cripple.
"Thank you, Lord, thank you for Your mercy," Gonzalo whispered, head bowed. When he raised it again he noticed that there was a large object hanging from the soldier's smooth, black belt. It was a leather pouch containing an odd looking item. At the top he could see a pearl handle. As softly as he could, so as not to alert the still groggy soldier, Gonzalo unclasped the holster. He pulled out a long, silvery barrel. His blood began to run a few degrees colder. It looked like some kind of a firearm. Gonzalo thought of the bulky harquebus hanging from his own silver-studded shoulder belt. This thing was smaller, smoother, and he suspected, deadlier.
Of course, a rich officer would have only the best of pistols, but Gonzalo had never seen one of such quality, even in the royal courts of England and Spain. He gave the soldier an apologetic shrug as he carefully placed the weapon in his own leather storage pouch, just for a while, until he could further gauge the fellow's mood and intentions. He picked up the fallen sword as well. How that must have been a torture, the means of escape just out of reach! Gonzalo was an excellent swordsman, but he didn't want to fight. There was no sense in taking any chances.