Part One of Two: Pyramids in the Corn
If Nate closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he was back home in Texas, sitting under the shady willows at his family's ranch on a summer evening, the smoke from the barbecue heralding the pleasures of the meal to come. Unfortunately, he couldn't close his eyes. He needed them to watch for approaching danger. For approaching monsters. He wasn't home anymore, nowhere near, and was pretty sure he would never set foot there again. At least he was sitting in the shade, although it was provided by a plant that looked like it couldn't make its mind up whether it was a tree or a cactus. He was careful not to lean against its thorny trunk.
The smoke actually did smell pretty good, but that was no trusty Texas beef they were roasting. It was a slab of genuine dragon leg. Nate watched as Gonzalo used a long, mean-looking dagger to carve it up as pretty as a Christmas goose. Nate took a careful bite. The dark, stringy meat reminded him of bird, but more hawk than chicken. This was the lean flesh of a predator. To call it 'gamey' didn't quite suffice, but it was made palatable by the salt and herbs the tribesmen had rubbed it with. As he ate the pungent fare, he decided he was just plain glad to be alive, considering the ordeal of the previous days.
Instead of reviewing his long list of complaints, hurts, and mistakes, Nate made himself focus on the situation at hand. He looked over at his new traveling companion, the ex-conquistador Gonzalo, who was gobbling down dragon meat like it was a slab of first-prize barbecue ribs at the county fair. Who knew what awful food this man from some three hundred years before Nate's own time had endured? Compared to the rations of a conquistador in the New World of the 1540s, monster meat might just taste like heaven. Their three new acquaintances obviously agreed. They were tucking in with relish. Well, at least no one was starving in this hellish place they had all ended up in, not yet anyway. He would count that as a good thing, in a time and place where good things were rare.
When breakfast was finished, they broke camp quickly. Nate and Gonzalo tended to their horses, while their ever-efficient guides put out the fire and packed up their supplies. Within minutes they were on the march, the too-bright sun still fairly low in the sky.
Nate and Gonzalo rode in silence, both still digesting the magnitude of what they had learned from each other about their predicament. Time travelers they were, a thing neither of them would ever have thought of in a million years. Always alert for danger, they followed their guides through the wide, sandy spaces between the misshapen thorn trees dotting the hills. Once, a huge bird swooped in low over their heads, startling everyone. It circled back. Upon closer scrutiny it wasn't a bird at all, but some kind of flying lizard! A leathery-skinned, bat-winged monstrosity the color of rainclouds, with a long, beak-like mouth, and a strange crest protruding from its head. Its wingspan was at least twelve feet. Gonzalo crossed himself. The horses both snorted in trepidation, but their riders kept them under control. They were both well-trained warhorses, and were used to peril.
Nate's hand instinctively went to the pearl handle of his prized Paterson Colt revolver. He had taken to carrying the weapon loaded with all five shots ready, along with a loaded spare cylinder as backup. There was always the danger of an accidental discharge, but he had decided to take his chances with that, over being eaten by one of the local monsters. Watching the evil-looking creature circle, he once again regretted being forced to abandon his rifle with the Cherokees. But with a mad-as-hell chief and all his sons and nephews coming at him with blood on their minds, he hadn't had time to pack. The truth was, he had been lucky to get out of there with his clothes on. She sure had been a pretty lil' varmint, but hardly worth that kind of trouble.
The flying creature let out an ear-splitting shriek, glared at them with a baleful crimson eye, then flapped thunderously away. It flew toward the great forest five miles distant, an immense wall painted a thousand shades of green. Once the foul thing was gone, the group began moving again, but all with half an eye looking to the sky for further visitors.
"That thing was right out of a Bosch painting," Nate said.
"Who was Bosch?" Gonzalo asked after a while.
"He was a seventeenth-century Dutch painter. He had a wild imagination, and delighted in portraying the most livid scenes of Hell, full of wild-looking imps and demons. Fascinating work, best not viewed before dining."
Nate paused, his eyes widening. "What in tarnation is that?" His weather-burned hand raised, pointing at something odd looming beyond the top of the next rise. It appeared to be the top of a building, too distant to make out clearly, but definitely man-made, its angles too perfect for nature. Their guides, unmounted, couldn't see it yet.
"Tell your pals to pick up the pace, Gonzalo. Let's hurry up and get to the top of that next hill."
Once their guides were alerted to their intentions, Nate gave Poppy a click that sent her into a canter. He took a moment to rejoice in having his prize mare back safe and sound. She was a pretty thing, an appaloosa from the distant Northwest, and he had paid a pretty penny for her. Her colorful coat had reminded Nate of a field of poppies back home, and so she was called.
Nate reached the top of the hill just a few seconds before Gonzalo caught up to him on his swift palomino stallion. Poppy stood a hand taller than her new paramour, and it made the difference in the stretch. They brought their mounts to a halt, both staring in disbelief.
"It's . . . a city!" Nate said, eyes wide with amazement.
Before them lay a twenty-some-mile-wide stretch of floodplain, fields of achingly-familiar shades of green and gold over rich, dark soil, dotted with trees of startling normalcy. The middle distance was occupied by a city, around five square miles in size. Portions of it were walled, and construction could be seen, where they were erecting more such fortifications. The ubiquitous forest of gigantic conifers bordered one side of this paradisiacal stretch of earth. There were signs that logging was taking place. There would be no shortage of timber available to the builders.
The central city was a wonder, hundreds of smaller buildings dominated by a group of massive, pyramid-like mounds, square in shape, and covered with grass except for their stone stairways. They could only have been constructed by the hands of man in what must have been an enormous undertaking. The largest was well over a hundred feet tall, not counting the barn-sized building occupying most of its top. The mound's footprint was at least fourteen acres! There were wide, open spaces between these structures, where people could be seen moving about, although they were too far away to make out in any detail.
"I have heard of cities such as this from the tales of former comrades, men who had followed Cortés into Central America. There were great pyramids of stone there, much the same as those found in Egypt. These seem to be formed of earth. It is strange, no one knew of such a city in North America."
"In your time. Or mine, for that matter. My guess is, this place is from a long time before either of our peoples came along. In any case, it's pretty incredible! I've never seen anything man-made that big. Must be some kind of castles." Nate's face was filled with an almost child-like wonder.
"Or cathedrals," Gonzalo said, touching the silver cross at his breast.
Their three guides had caught up with them, and gestured toward the city with wide smiles. One of them spoke for a few moments, then started walking down the hill.
"I can't be certain, Nate, but I think he called this the Place of Our Children's Children. Their dialect is rather strange, I'm afraid, I can only understand bits and pieces. Perhaps our friends here are from an even more distant past?"
"Well, considering that we both came from different times, that doesn't sound too surprising. Let's hope their children's children are as nice a folk as these fellows seem to be."
"Yes, let us hope so. The Aztec city-dwellers of Central America were known for bloody rituals of human sacrifice," Gonzalo said.
At the bottom of the hill, the thorny scrub-lands abruptly gave way to fields of good, old-fashioned plains grass, as if the two terrains were bolts of different cloth laid edge to edge. Progress forward had to pause, as the horses stopped to eat their fill. There could be no dragging them away from such a sumptuous meal after the meager rations they had been subsisting on. The men all smiled, feasting their eyes on the sweet verdure of God's proper Earth. Here and there, meadow flowers bloomed, so beautiful as to nearly break their hearts.
After a while, they urged their still-hungry mounts forward; it wouldn't be well to fill their bellies too full after what had been nearly a fast. There would be plenty for later, and—
Dear Savior, was that corn up ahead? Gonzalo and Nate both shared a hungry look as they passed through fields of tall, stately maize, crowned with golden tassels. Nate figured it was probably that funny-colored injun corn in the husks, but at this point he could probably chew up a corncob pipe for supper and then ask for seconds.
As they drew closer to the great mound city, Gonzalo wondered if his former comrades, the conquistadors, had come here, and what evils they might have perpetrated? It was very possible he would not be welcomed. In fact, they might want his head to display on a pike above the city gates. He bore this fear silently, resolved that whatever fate awaited him he deserved, payment for his many sins. It was likely that he had survived the terrors of the swamp only to be brought down by what he thought must be the forebears of those de Soto's expedition had used so cruelly.
They followed a narrow, hard-packed road through the fields. Along the way, a very surprised-looking native stuck his head out of the stalks, eyes goggling at the approaching visitors. After a brief, but very animated exchange with their guides, the man shot ahead, running full tilt toward the city. Not long later, they arrived at a heavy, wooden gate between two towers of rough-hewn timber. Each tower held five warriors, all with bows aimed at them. Twenty more bowmen lined the top of the wall on each side. Their guides turned to Nate and Gonzalo, their gestures unmistakably signaling for them to wait where they were.
Gonzalo said something that must have been consent in their language, and the three began walking toward the gate, arms held high, calling out loudly all the while. Some of the men in the towers called back, and a long, loud conversation began, which included many dramatic gesticulations.
"Can you understand them?" Nate asked Gonzalo. The Spaniard had taken off his helmet, securing it firmly behind him on the saddle. He pushed damp locks of thick, black hair back from his brow, then cocked his head like a hunting bird, listening carefully. After a moment he sighed.
"Very little, I'm afraid. This is a different dialect, perhaps some other tongue entirely. It is always like this with the natives. Go but a little ways up a river, and you will find a completely different language."
Nate laughed softly. "I know how that is. I can speak Cherokee pretty good, and a smattering of Chickasaw and Choctaw. This here sounds a bit like Chickasaw, but just only a word or two, can't really be sure. Anyway, I wonder what the fuss is all about. Those fellows on the wall don't look too happy to see us."
"I fear I might know why. If they have met others of de Soto's force, they will not be pleased to see a man such as me." Gonzalo's darkly-tanned, olive-skinned face was deeply etched with shame.
"Well, even so, it wasn't you. Your friends there will vouch for you, I think."
"Perhaps. I shall meet whatever judgment awaits me. I have sinned much, and am tired of fleeing my fate. It will be God's will if I meet my death at the hands of my fellow man, rather than in the maw of some dragon."
"The hell it will! Buck up, man. If it comes to that, we beat it the hell out of here! You can't just let them take you!" Nate paused for a moment. The idea of losing his odd new companion so soon didn't sit well with him. "If we have to, we'll fight!"