The mesa’s cliffs were as smooth and shiny as glass and perfectly straight, as if cut by a fine saw. The four men felt awed by the massive structure towering above them, at least a thousand feet high. They paused to marvel for a while, all feeling a tinge of fear that the whole thing might topple over on them. Eventually, each man had to look away, dizzy, their senses overcome by the mesa’s unnatural, looming presence.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Makes the City of the Pyramids look like an ant hill,” Nate said, his voice low in the silence of the Drained Sea’s sandy flats.
“Nor have I, truly, a wonder . . . although I am not sure it was God’s hand who created it,” Gonzalo replied, stroking his pointy black beard thoughtfully.
“I’ll believe pretty much anything after all we’ve seen. But like you said, this doesn’t look much like God’s handiwork to me, either. It’s too straight, too perfect.”
“Just so. But, if not Him, then who? Or, what?”
Ni-T’o began to speak, his soft baritone filled with reverence. Gonzalo translated for Nate, although Nate was beginning to catch more and more of their tribesman friend’s native tongue.
“He says that we have left the land of the demons, and this must be the home of the gods.”
“Well, I guess we’ll never know unless we find a way up there. Let’s poke around a bit more before it gets dark on us.”
They had arrived at the tip of the mesa farthest from the shore of the wide sea that, to their surprise, occupied the middle of the continent in this primeval epoch. The far end of the formation was now becoming obscured by an evening mist rolling in off the water. The walls were concave on this side, a gentle, but distinct curve. A short ride around its nearly razor-sharp pointed tip revealed that the backside was curved outward, the overall shape forming that of a fat, crescent moon, some forty miles in length. They surmised that it would be nearly half that at its widest point, if the shape held along the entire structure. It was impossible to see at the moment, the walls curved away out of sight beyond the apex. They would have to walk its length toward the sea to know for sure.
“Well, we best make camp,” Nate said, appraising their options with his scout’s sharp eyes. “There’s a rise just over there, some big sand dunes. Let’s get on top of those for whatever protection they can provide.”
Drawing closer, the dunes proved to be larger than they had thought, around a hundred feet high. They were pleased to find a natural basin had formed where the tops of several dunes came together, it would keep them out of sight, and protected from the rising wind gusting inland from the sea. After the horses were watered and fed, they made what they could of a camp. There was no firewood to be had, so T’cumu lit a small cookfire from the charcoal they had carried with them. They used it to char some salted strips of ‘four-footed-goose meat,’ which they ate with a simple bread made of corn and seeds.
“Nate, have you ever noticed that even the most simple of repasts tastes like the finest of banquets when cooked on a fire after a long day’s journey?”
“Yes, I have, it’s one of the few mercies granted to the traveling soldier. I wouldn’t look twice at this stuff on a Sunday morning in my granny’s kitchen, but here it’s manna from heaven.” He looked over to Ni-T’o, the evening’s cook, and told him “This is delicious, Ni-T’o, thank you!” in what he hoped was the correct form in the man’s own language. Both he and his younger cousin, T’cumu, grinned encouragingly, Ni-T’o dipping his head and answering with “You’re welcome!” in English.
All of the men looked forward to the day when Gonzalo could retire as translator, and they could speak together in any one of the group’s three languages. Nate made a point of using Spanish with the tribesmen most of the time. He knew it pleased Gonzalo, who could possibly be the last of his kind in this new New World. Nate knew for a fact there were plenty of English speakers back the way he had come, and that crafty old bastard of a tongue would most likely end up being the one preferred by traders, just as it had in most of the places it had come to. All the more reason why it would be good to keep Spanish alive, even if just to have a way to communicate without most of the English-speaking contingent understanding. That odd assortment included the US soldiers that he, a cavalry man, had been serving with as scout, the evicted Cherokee they were no longer escorting, and a bunch of prisoners and their guards from the late twentieth century. . . Nate was decidedly away on permanent leave, and didn’t trust any of them one bit. He was grateful for the new friends he had made, who offered companionship and shelter in a very hostile world.
The party was up well before daybreak as usual, having learned it best to do as much as possible before the tyranny of the young Cretaceous sun came to rule the land. Nate’s mare, Poppy, snorted, sniffing hungrily at the air.
“I think she smells something she likes,” Gonzalo noted.
“I can see some kind of greenery up on the top of that thing. Maybe she’s getting a whiff of that.”
“It would be a blessing if we found more plants suitable to the tastes of our own times. I shall pray to the Lord for a way to reach the summit.”
They spent the morning following the vast curve of the mesa’s far side. Even while walking in order to give the horses a rest, they made good time; the Drained Sea’s bottom was flat and sandy. Only the scattered remnants of doomed, sun-dried sea-creatures remained to remind them of the unnatural disaster that had happened here. With the daylight they gained a view of the country beyond the mesa; the Drained Sea had extended northward another twenty miles, where it met a highland native to the current era. Glassy cliffs twinkled in the distance, topped by gargantuan conifers where the former terrain had been replaced by the sudden presence of an ancient sea. That way was demon country to be sure, and close enough that they had better stay on the alert for approaching monsters. The mesa had been an island for a brief time during that strange deluge.
As they followed the gentle curve, the highlands slowly drew closer to the mesa, narrowing the gap to around five miles. Both men and horses stuck close to the wall, which provided a few feet of welcome shade. The tribesmen seemed uncomfortable beneath the unnatural heights, but their avoidance of the terrible sun won out. Around noon, the party reached the widest portion of the crescent. It was time for a break. Nate sat down with his back to the mesa, the strange, glassy mass of compacted earth and stone was pleasantly cool against his sweat-soaked shirt.
Gonzalo stood, looking straight up, watching for signs of life a thousand feet above.
“I thought I saw a flock of birds a while ago, but it may have been an illusion of the heat,” he said, squinting into the too-bright sky.
“Well, we all saw that raven. It could have come from somewhere else, I suppose. A number of familiar critters came into this world with us. Let me know if you see anything,” Nate said, pulling his hat over his eyes for a nap.
“Look!” T’cumu suddenly called out in Spanish, making Nate jump up from his rest in a hurry. “Demon-birds!”
A formation of reptilian fliers soared far above, sometimes swooping out over the mesa’s edge as they headed toward the sea. They looked to be of the same type they had seen diving for fish along the shore the previous day. It would have been hard to make them out at such a distance if they weren’t so incredibly large.
“Damn. It’s probably going to just be a bunch more of them big lizards up top,” Nate growled as he returned to his interrupted nap.
“The most likely case,” Gonzalo said in a disappointed tone. “Still, it would be easy enough for a flying creature of this time to reach the top. What lies above remains a mystery until we can see for ourselves.”
Ni-T’o leaned against the mesa’s wall, running his hands over it. He pushed and poked at the material with his finger without leaving a dent. Next he tried his bone knife, which made a scoring impression, but whatever had created the wall had fused it into a hard, stone-like substance. He cursed under his breath and shrugged his shoulders at his companions.
“We cannot climb this,” he said in Spanish, which both tribesmen were increasingly becoming proficient in, much to Gonzalo’s delight.
“Just as well. I’m afraid of high places,” Nate quipped in the same language from under his hat’s wide brim, making the others laugh. It was nice not having to wait for Gonzalo to translate. It was only because of the trust he had come to place in these men from other times and nations that the Texan allowed himself to drift off into a comfortable doze.
T’cumu didn’t require much rest, so he stalked along the shadow’s outer edge, keeping watch. He had learned to always be on guard in these hostile lands, which held dangers the likes of which no man had ever seen. He didn’t want to say it to his cousin, or to his new friends, as he understood they missed their former existences, but T’cumu was glad that he had ended up here. This new New World, as his companions from the future had come to call it, was thrilling and full of wonders. He now had challenges worthy of his prowess. This was his chance to become a great warrior like those in his people’s old tales, facing awesome beasts and horrific demons, vanquishing them with his might! Glory and honor would be his, and one day he would be a powerful chief, worthy of respect from all peoples. He gazed into the waves of heat distorting the distance into a dream, felt the strength of a new sun on his face, and smiled.
An hour later Nate woke up, rubbing his deeply tanned face. Gonzalo handed him his lunch, some kind of corn porridge wrapped in an edible leaf. It was good in a very simple way, and he gobbled it down with more pleasure than he ever would have expected from what he still thought of as injun grub. Hopefully, they would find some fresh meat soon, he longed for a nice, juicy steak, even if it did come from some overgrown horned-toad, or other such monstrosity of the new New World.
It was time to go. Gonzalo checked on the horses, gently petting each one while talking quietly to them in encouraging tones.
“Come, my fine friends, we must continue on. Perhaps later we will find a nice, fresh stream to drink from, eh? Good horses, beautiful horses.”
“All that pretty talk is going right to Poppy’s head,” Nate told his friend with a smile, taking her reins as he prepared to mount. “She’s got enough of a mind of her own anyway, without starting to think she’s some fancy lady.”
“But she truly is a lovely creature, I have never seen markings like hers. I hope that her foal will bear them as well.”
Gonzalo climbed easily onto Flavio’s back, despite his heavy boots and assorted pieces of armor. He had left much of his kit back at the village to spare his mount the added weight on the journey, but he still insisted on breastplate and helm. Flavio shifted his weight, eager to be on the move again. Gonzalo patted his stallion’s gold-furred neck with great affection.
“Yes, you will be the proud father, you randy creature! If your scion inherits the best traits from both sides, it will be a fine animal indeed!”
Shortly, T’cumu and Ni-T’o were astride midnight-black Bella. They rode single-file to stay within the thin belt of shade provided by the wall. As they passed beyond the widest point, they could, at last, view the seaward tip of the massive formation. A coral-covered rise in the dry sea bottom drew in close, then paralleled the mesa for several miles, creating a funnel. The water moving between the two land masses had been greatly accelerated as it squeezed through the narrowing gap, its power causing that end of the crescent to crumble.
It was still too far away to make out in detail, but they could see the straight wall had fallen into a tumble-down slope.
“See? the Good Lord has provided us with a way up!” Gonzalo announced happily.
“I’m not betting on that until we get closer. From here that looks like it might be climbable, but I doubt much it will be a smooth go,” Nate said, hoping he was wrong.
“Dang, I hate being right,” Nate said as they began their survey. With their base undermined by the flood, huge slabs of mesa had tipped over, each leaning against its neighbor, one canted above the next like a fallen line of dominoes. The first shard, formerly the outer edge, lay flat, crushed beneath the weight of those behind it, dying trees protruding sideways over the sandy, dry bottom. The next slab above was at a slightly less precarious incline, and so on. A man should be able to make his way up, but a horse might be a different story.
The horses began to get excited, sniffing the air, their nostrils wide and eager.
“Grass!” Ni-T’o said happily, pointing to an area of the fall that had somehow slid free of the destruction, landing in a nearly upright position. It formed a dainty little meadow with deciduous trees and bushes growing around an inviting carpet of lush grass.
“It looks stable enough,” Nate said, urging a very hungry Poppy to slow down long enough for him to scope out the area. “Somebody’s going to eat well tonight!”
With an exasperated click he let Poppy have her way, the other horses close behind. The group dismounted, letting their tired mounts graze to their heart’s greedy content.
“This bodes well,” Gonzalo said, squinting up at the slope. “I have yet to see any grass growing in the regions native to this time. This place must have come from the future, much as we did.”
Nate nodded, rubbing his stubbled chin as he surveyed the impressive jumble of trees, boulders, and displaced earth.
“Now, if we can just get up there. Looks like that’s going to be a bit of a trick, but do-able. Not so sure about the horses, though.”
T’cumu was already a good twenty yards up onto the slide, looking for possible paths. After a few minutes of scouting he turned to look down at his waiting companions.
“Not good,” he called down to them in his steadily improving Spanish. “Men can go up, but horses . . . no.”
“Hellfire, that just figures. Why do I have to be right all the dang time?” Nate growled in English, his face falling into an irritated scowl. He plopped down on a mossy boulder to have a good think, wiping the sweat from his face and neck with a well-worn handkerchief.
Gonzalo continued to peer up, stroking his beard as usual while considering their options. There was something about this place that called to him, that had taken his fancy ever since he had first seen it in the far distance from the village. When T’cumu had rejoined them, he spoke, mostly in Spanish, and also translating some of what he had to say into the tribal language.
“Friends, we are fortunate that The Lord has granted us a way to reach the top of this mysterious mesa, giving us the opportunity to discover its secrets. The problem is, we can not bring the horses up there—yet. I suggest that some of us go ahead and climb up there, and, as we go, we can search for the easiest paths, those that could be made passable for the horses. It would certainly be a large undertaking, but perhaps not impossible. In any case, once we are on the top, and have had a look around, we can determine if what we find there is worth blazing a wide trail up to. What do you all say?”
Ni-T’o and T’cumu conversed rapidly in their tongue while Nate gazed thoughtfully up at the rubble above.
They had made one discovery already, to Nate’s mind the most important: There was grass up there, and trees that looked like the ones men were accustomed to. And where those grew, game dwelled, and maybe even people. The grass alone would be beyond price in the largely inhospitable new New World.
Ni-T’o spoke up. “I will stay with the horses. T’cumu will go up.”
Splitting up was less than ideal to Ni-T’o’s mind. He, too, was curious about the mesa, but he knew the future men would want to go, and someone had to be responsible for the horses. Also, his head was a lot cooler than his younger cousin’s, who would be bitter at being left behind on such an adventure. In any case, they needed more arrows, and this would be an ideal place for him to stop a while to make some, with all the necessary materials present in abundance. He allowed himself a small smile. His arrows were always a bit better than T’cumu’s, not that he would ever tell him that.
T’cumu, of course, grinned broadly, eager for exploration.
Nate and Gonzalo looked at each other.
“Well, I guess I would like to get up there and have a look-see,” Nate said.
“I, as well!” Gonzalo was almost giddy, as delighted as a kid with two handfuls of candy. “So, we have a plan. It’s getting late now, I suggest we start fresh in the morning. This will be a very pleasant place to spend the night.”
“Amen to that,” Nate said, plucking a long blade of bright green grass from the shade beside his sitting rock, and placing an end of it in his mouth. It was a taste of home, and filled him with a mixture of pleasure in the moment and pain at the remembrance of what they had all lost.
Their night in the meadow passed by in peace and quiet; only the distant sound of waves and the rush of wind across the Drained Sea could be heard. It was a relief to be sleeping on familiar-feeling soil after the desolate sands of the past days. The evening before, they had fortified the area as best they could, building a brush and branch fence into a paddock for the horses and fashioning a lookout some thirty-feet up in an adjacent tree–a safe and hidden place for Ni-T’o to keep watch from and, if necessary, take refuge in. They also made sure he had plenty of torches ready-made if he should have any unwelcome visitors in the darkness. So far, no native creatures had found their way across the expanse of sand between the mesa and the ubiquitous conifer forests, but that wouldn’t last forever. Taking enough supplies for a three-night stay, the three climbers wished their stalwart companion safety and farewell as they set off up the ragged slopes toward the summit.
The going varied between fairly easy and highly difficult terrain. Sometimes it was as simple as walking up a steep, grass-covered hillside, grabbing on to one of the leaning trees or bushes for support when needed. Nate was pretty sure he could name much of the foliage; there were beech and buckeyes, dogwood and elms. He let out a whoop of joy when he came upon a tree chock-full of ripe black cherries. The three of them picked as many of the delicious little fruits as they could carry, and nearly as many went into their mouths.
Nate made a point of spitting his pits into his hand and stuffing them into his pocket to plant elsewhere when the chance arrived.
“This is starting to look a lot like home!” the Texan nearly crowed, grinning up at the mesa top, still a good six-hundred feet above. More trees and brush could be seen there, making him think all of this trouble might be worth it.
“Good land!” T’cumu mumbled through a mouthful of cherries.
Gonzalo grinned at his companions, teeth stained from the wonderful fruit, but his cheer faded as he saw there would be some hard climbing ahead. Stuffing a last handful of cherries in his mouth, he began to move carefully upwards through the canted terrain.
They were not far from the top when they encountered their first impasse. The last slab of the mesa falling away from the main formation had left a dangerous crevasse; a steep, slippery slope of loose dirt and scree on their side, and a cliff as nearly straight and sheer as the glassy outer edges beyond. Both sides would be terribly difficult to traverse, if not impossible without special gear. The crevasse was around a hundred-feet deep but only thirty across. It felt maddening to be so close to their destination, yet thwarted by nature’s fickle ways.
“The devil’s own shit!” Gonzalo cursed roundly, then looked embarrassed at having blasphemed so egregiously. This made Nate and T’cumu laugh, with T’cumu repeating the phrase to himself, cataloging it for future use.
“Never you mind, altar boy, I won’t tell on you for using foul language,” Nate said with dark cheer. “This is surely going to be one hell of a bitch to get across.”
Their path had brought them almost to the western edge of the fall. No course presented itself there, so they worked their way along the edge eastward, looking for some way across, their hopes fading with each step. T’cumu did best in this difficult terrain, climbing over and under the leaning trees as if born to it. Nate and Gonzalo lost sight of him after a while, both simply concentrating on making progress forward.
After a while, they heard a sharp whistle, which they had come to know meant T’cumu had found something, and to come along quick. Crawling through a particularly dense copse of brush, they emerged, scratched up and covered with leaves, to find T’cumu smiling ear to ear, standing next to the top of a very large, fallen maple tree. What was interesting about this particular tree was that its roots were embedded deeply in the soil on the far precipice, forming a natural bridge. At first the going looked easy enough, with plenty of branches to hang on to, but then came a long expanse of bare, four-foot-thick trunk clad in deeply grooved, gray bark, with patches of slippery-looking moss growing inconveniently here and there. Moreover, the tree wasn’t lying perfectly straight, but pitched at an uphill angle–not too steep to cross if it were just a few feet above a shallow stream—but if one should slip, the drop would be a deadly one.
“This way!” T’cumu shouted gleefully, then proceeded to run up the tree as easily as a squirrel might. Once on the far side, he scrambled up into the massive, unearthed roots, and waved for them to join him.
Gonzalo and Nate shared a long, doleful grimace.
“Jacob’s Ladder,” Gonzalo muttered, voice freighted with sarcasm.
“Are you afraid of heights?” Nate asked him.
“I fear little, but it is true that I prefer to keep my feet on solid ground,” Gonzalo answered, trying half-halfheartedly to keep his dignity intact.
“Yeah. I’m afraid of heights, too. This is not going to be fun, by no means.”
Each of them let out a long resigned sigh, before making their way to the makeshift bridge.
“After you!” Gonzalo told Nate, with a regal bow, and a sweeping gesture of deference.
“Oh, no, I simply couldn’t. After you, please. Make sure it’s safe for a poor old flatlander like me.”
Gonzalo gave him a dour, narrow-eyed look, knowing full well when he was being sent along a primrose path.
“But of course, Nate, the pleasure will be mine. Just watch how I do it, and your confidence will increase!” he told his friend in falsely confident tones.
With his shoulders set, Gonzalo stepped up onto the trunk and began to move forward, one hand grasping firmly onto each new branch before letting go with the other. Shortly, he was over the edge, and could see down through the leafy mass of branches to the debris-strewn bottom of the crevasse a hundred feet below. This made him dizzy, so he closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a moment, a trick a wise old sergeant had taught him to calm himself before entering battle. In truth, Gonzalo was afraid of heights, and would almost have wished himself to be in the warm safety found between the jaws of a dragon than out on such a limb.
Gonzalo paused as he reached the spot where the branches ran out. A seemingly endless stretch of bare trunk lay before him at an increasingly uncomfortable, rising tilt. He made sure not to look past that narrow path, down into the yawning chasm. One misstep would mean certain death. Taking another deep breath, he leaned forward, hands stretched ahead of him, and took a careful step. The bark was fairly solid, but the mossy patches looked untrustworthy. He would do his best to avoid those. Staying low, and concentrating on keeping his balance, he took another step, and another. He suffered a brief scare when, indeed, an unnoticed piece of moss slid slightly under his leather sole. He froze, regained his composure, then very slowly moved his foot over to a clear spot, where it regained solid purchase on the rough, deeply creased bark.
Soon the worst was over. The going became a little bit easier as the trunk widened near the roots. Feeling as if an eternity had passed, Gonzalo looked up to see T’cumu’s smiling face and outstretched hand, welcoming him to safety. His ordeal finished, Gonzalo wiped his sweating brow on his sleeve, then smiled and waved at Nate, who had come as far out as the branch handholds lasted.
“Watch out for the moss!” He called out to Nate. “It is slippery!”
“Wonderful!” Nate called back in a less than enthusiastic tone. Nate was nearly a head taller than Gonzalo, and in this case it didn’t help him any. Stooping down as much as he could, he began to move forward in the same way Gonzalo had, one careful step at a time. He had made it about halfway across the bare trunk when T’cumu called out to him, his voice urgent.
The unexpected shout alone nearly made Nate miss a step, and he paused.
“What?” he called back, voice hoarse with growing fear.
“Keep going, Nate, as fast as you can!” Gonzalo called out in an anxious tone that made Nate shiver.
Nate did as they said, doubling his pace when possible, breathing hard, his hands beginning to tremble. Something was happening, and he was in danger even greater than hurrying his precarious journey. He heard a rushing sound, the beat of enormous wings. Unable to stop himself he paused to look. Around sixty feet away, one of the big, flying reptiles was soaring toward him, its long, beak-like mouth wide open, its jaws serrated like a saw. Nate had to make a split-second decision. He realized he would never make it to the safety of the mesa in time. He braced himself, waiting for the creature to make its attack. Just as the dagger-sharp talons reached for his upper body he threw himself down, face-first onto the tree trunk. The monster missed him by a scant few inches and it squawked angrily as the momentum carried it away. Nate gripped the rough bark as best he could, but it wasn’t enough of a purchase to withstand that thing’s clutches—he would be carried away on the next pass. The nightmare creature was already slowing, dipping one bat-like wing in a wide turn back towards him again. Ni-T’o and T’cumu called the great reptilian beasts demons, and at that moment Nate very much believed they had the right of it.
There was only one thing to do. Working as fast as he could without slipping off the log, he took the lariat from his belt and swung it hard so that it passed under the tree trunk and back up again into his hand. He passed the coiled remainder through the loop’s sturdy knot, guessed on an appropriate length, then tied another loop firmly around his waist, a tricky business while lying face down on a tree trunk over an abyss. He felt a rising wind. The beast was nearly upon him.
“Watch out!” Gonzalo cried.
Nate glanced up as the creature barreled toward him, intent on carrying him away from his perch. He heard the thwip and twang of arrows flying, but they bounced off the creature’s tough, leathery hide. At the last second before contact there was nothing to do but roll off the log and trust in his rope. He held on tight and let himself fall. There was the sickening sensation of being at the mercy of gravity’s inexorable pull, then a sudden gut-wrenching lurch as his weight caught on the loop around his waist. The rope dug in deeply, the pain making him gasp. The shadow of the beast passed over the tree trunk above, it moved its head back and forth, confused at having lost track of such an easy target. Nate held on for dear life, swinging around like a pinata.
“It’s coming back again!” Gonzalo told him, both men firing arrow after arrow into the thing’s thick hide. Most of them bounced off, but some stuck, serving mostly to anger it further. Nate watched as it made another tight turn, then soared down toward the man swinging on the rope. As it made its next approach it spread its wings wide, braking. With the mass of the tree trunk shielding Nate from above, its claws would have a hard time reaching him. It didn’t look as if it was built to hover. Several more arrows stuck in its side, piercing deeper now as his companions learned the location of its weak spots. Still, it ignored such irritants, flashing, crimson eyes intent on its prey.
Nate scowled at it, anger replacing fear. He drew his saber and waited, one hand still gripping the rope to hold him upright, the loop around his waist tightening painfully under his weight.
“Come and get it, little birdie,” he grunted, readying himself. The creature came at him from below, trying to grab his legs in its fearsome beak. Waiting until the last possible second, Nate kicked up hard with both legs, knocking the bottom of the beak into the top with a loud clack. He then swung his saber, hard and fast, landing a mighty blow to the creature’s throat. He was lucky. The blade cut deep into soft flesh just behind the base of the beak. Dark, red blood seeped out of the wound, and the creature shrieked with pain. The flying horror dropped away then, winging slowly toward the end of the ravine and the sea beyond, looking back once with its baleful eye with what could only be described as hatred. A few moments later it was gone.
Nate closed his eyes for a moment, whispering a quick prayer of thanks to a God he sometimes thought he should spend a little more time believing in. From above, whoops of triumph came from Gonzalo and T’cumu, ecstatic that their friend had survived the terrifying encounter. Nate gave them an acknowledging wave with his sword arm and shouted, “Thank you, thank you! Just another day on the range. Now, how in tarnation do I get back myself back up on top of this damned log?”
That operation went much easier than Nate would have thought. While Gonzalo remained on watch, arrow notched, T’cumu scurried down the log with his nimble grace, and laid down on it, knees tight against its sides, holding onto Nate’s lariat with his left hand. With his right hand he reached down toward his friend hanging below.
“Rope!” he said, motioning toward the remaining line swinging freely beneath Nate.
“Right!” Nate answered. He very carefully sheathed his saber, then pulled the rope back up, coiling it as best he could in such an uncomfortable position, and handed it up to T’cumu. Despite his comparatively small stature, the tribesman was all muscle. He began to pull Nate upwards in a dead lift, biceps straining and bronze skin gleaming with sweat in the burning sunlight. Nearing the top, Nate grabbed on to the loop around the trunk with one hand, while T’cumu took the other. With one last heave, Nate was lying across the trunk on his stomach.
“You go up, quick,” T’cumu ordered him, something Nate was only too happy to do.
“My rope . . .” he croaked, loath to leave behind such a treasure.
“I get,” T’cumu assured him, loosening the lariat that held the length to the tree.
Nate managed a tired smile.
“Thanks,” he said, then began to crawl toward a nervously waiting Gonzalo. A few minutes later, which felt like an eternity, he was standing next to his friend behind the safety of the tree’s massive bole. A scant second later T’cumu sprung over the side grinning merrily, and they all clambered down, careful not to slip into the deep hole left by the upturned roots.
“I really would have preferred a ladder,” Nate said as his feet gratefully touched solid ground. “I was damn lucky there weren’t more of those things.”
“The Lord watches over us, even in these hellish lands,” Gonzalo replied, crossing himself.
Out of danger for the time being, the three men paused to take their first look at the country atop the mysterious mesa. They stood in silence for a while, drinking in the scene with wide eyes. Compared to all the strange and dangerous lands they had passed through since their unexpected journey through time, what lay before them was a paradise—fields of grass dotted with meadow flowers hummed with bees, copses of deciduous trees in full fruit and blossom, a babbling brook sparkling brightly in the morning sun.
“It’s the Garden of Eden!” Gonzalo exclaimed, crossing himself a few more times just to be safe.
“Watch out for snakes,” Nate muttered sarcastically, still sore from his ordeal.
“A good land!” T’cumu crooned, an expression of bliss on his handsome, young face.
A flock of brilliant red birds flew by, Nate recognized them as redbirds, which some folks called cardinals. Was this place really a slice of home? The flora and fauna they had seen so far filled him with an irrational hope that in a mile or two they would come across a friendly town full of regular folk from his own time, who would cheerfully provide him with beef and potatoes for supper, and a feather bed on which to lay his weary head.
“Well, maybe this is the land of milk and honey,” Nate said, doffing his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow. “Let’s take a stroll and see.”
To Be Continued . . .