Gonzalo stood on the wide, shady porch of his Spanish-style mud brick home, watching the tall figure of Nate Tucker ambling across the meadow. It was a familiar sight, but one he hadn’t seen for more than a week.
“Hello, my friend!” he called out cheerfully to the Texan. “How is married life treating you?”
“Fine, just fine,” Nate said in a contented tone, “but I confess I could use a little time off from all that bliss. She and that crazy old witch doctor are busy practicing their mumbo-jumbo today, so I thought I’d come see what you were up to.”
“Even the happiest of husbands must some time seek the company of their fellow men. I was just heading out to the archery range. Care to join me?
“That sounds like just the thing. Let’s go.”
Nate and Gonzalo strolled over to the range they had set up out past the horse paddocks and prepared their targets. Nate had struggled with the ancient weapon at first, but was showing signs of improvement. With little hope of obtaining more bullets in the New New World, he knew his life might one day depend on it.
“I’ve been thinking, Gonzalo,” Nate said, pausing during his turn at the target. “These shortbows were fine for shooting normal-sized game back in the tribe’s own time, but here they are pretty under-powered. A lot of those arrows were just bouncing off that dragon’s thick hide. So, I’ve been doing some thinking. Have you ever heard of the English longbow?”
Gonzalo’s face brightened. “Of course I have! I shot one myself, back when I was with the Spanish embassy in London. They were a deadly force in their day, less so by my era, but still effective.”
“How do you think a longbow would do against one of those big critters?”
Gonzalo pulled on his bushy black beard and considered.
“Well, they were designed to pierce armor, so I would think they would do quite well. It seems you have come up with quite a brilliant idea, my friend!”
“Well, I was inspired by your idea to use pikes against those monsters. They really saved our bacon. It’s going to be a while before we can make gunpowder or do anything with metals, although I think we had best get started on both of those projects real soon. Meanwhile, we can use the simpler techniques of earlier times, whatever might give us an advantage. We’re fairly safe up here on the mesa, but at some point we are going to have to go back down there to support our allies, and I would prefer some better firepower. So, do you think we could make ourselves some English longbows?”
“I think the Mesa People can make anything they put their minds to! They are truly remarkable craftsmen, given the rather primitive-looking tools they have to work with. If we show them what we want, I am sure they can not only create a longbow, but most likely improve on the English design! No offense to your forebearers intended, of course!” Gonzalo knew his friend well, but in matters of pride such as one’s esteemed ancestors, it was still best to jest with caution.
Nate laughed. “None taken! My father was an Englishman, through and through, but I am a Texan. I wonder what kind of wood we can use? There are scads of trees around, but I don’t think any of them are English yews.”
“I think we can leave that to our craftsmen, no doubt they will know just the thing. Let’s go see what Ni-T’o and T’cumu think.”
It didn’t take them too long to find their friends. The two cousins were in the horse paddock, leading the small herd of recently captured yearlings around behind their own mounts—Oklilinchi, T’cumu’s tamed native horse, and Bella, Ni-t’o’s sturdy Spanish mare.
Nate smiled at the progress they were making. It wouldn’t be long before they could add more horses and riders to their ranks. His dream of building a mounted force to handle threats both human and otherwise was unfolding before his very eyes, and it pleased him greatly.
Nate and Gonzalo watched for a while, leaning against the eight-foot-high split-rail fence they had constructed, a major improvement over the improvised brush fence it had replaced. It was big enough to keep the horses in, and, they hoped, the lions out. A twenty-four-hour guard was placed on the paddock, just to make sure. They hadn’t seen the lions lately. The arrival of so many people had caused the local pride to retire to the rugged, and as yet unexplored, northwestern third of the mesa.
When Ni-T’o and T’cumu noticed their friends had arrived, they immediately trotted their mounts over to greet them.
“The horses are looking good, fellas! Well done!” Nate told them.
“Thanks!” they replied in unison. T’cumu, who had a real gift with the animals, was unofficially the lead trainer, so Ni-T’o gave a little nod, deferring to him. T’cumu, around five years his junior, was fairly bursting with pride at their accomplishments.
“We will be able to start riding the new mesa horses soon!” T’cumu announced. “Many of the young braves are eager to try.”
“Well, that’s good to hear, I figured they would be.” Nate said. “I’ve seen them watching us ride, I can tell they’re itching to join in.”
“They are already arguing over who shall be first.” Ni-T’o told them with a chuckle. “We shall have to perform that ritual you taught us, the drawing of straws.”
“Works a charm every time. Say, Gonzalo and I were talking, and we have an idea we would like you to help us with. It would require your crafting skills.”
Both men would have gladly helped their friends with whatever they might ask, but at the mention of crafting skills, an activity most keenly relished, they perked up with excitement.
Gonzalo, who had once shot an actual English longbow back in sixteenth-century England, described the idea to the cousins, who listened with great interest.
“So, what do you think, my friends? Can it be done?” The Spaniard asked them.
“Most certainly!” T’cumu told him without hesitation.
The more thoughtful and reserved Ni-T’o nodded his head in the affirmative, and said, “We will try,” with a patient smile at T’cumu’s bright eagerness for all things new. “Let’s go find the right wood.”
They decided to walk, since their three mares were carrying foals from Gonzalo’s randy stallion Flavio, and it was best not to overwork them. They drew near Nate’s cabin, where the meadow was lined with the colorful teepees of the Raven warriors.
One of them called out to them as they were passing by.
“Where are you headed, friends?” he asked in a cheerful tone.
Nate gave his companions a very subtle shake of his head, which everyone immediately understood.
“Just out for a walk, maybe scare up some rabbits for supper,” Ni-T’o answered. They all smiled, returned the man’s wave, then continued on. Once they were well out of earshot, Nate spoke in low tones,
“I like the Ravens, I truly do, and now, hell, I’m married to their leader, but they are still city folk, and I want to keep at least some things we are up to under our hats. If this longbow actually works it may one day have to be used for more than monster shooting. Let’s just see how things go the next few weeks, maybe then we will know for sure how much we can trust them.”
His friends murmured their agreement, it was a wise course of action.
The party strolled through the many copses of trees dotting the mesa’s grasslands. It was getting a bit hot, as usual, but the occasional breezes finding their way up from the vast Western Ocean that lay a thousand feet below provided some refreshment. They walked in silence for a while, simply enjoying their camaraderie and the natural beauty that surrounded them. After a while, Ni-T’o paused, and pointed at a tree standing by itself in a flower-strewn meadow.
“That one.” he announced, and they turned their path toward it. The tree was about forty feet tall, with a short trunk and a round, umbrella-like top. It cast a wide circle of welcome shade beneath it. The large leaves were long, slender-pointed ovals, dark green, with a sheen on the top side. It was filled with large, bumpy-skinned, yellow-green fruits.
“I know this tree!” Nate said, “It’s an Osage orange. We used to have them down in Texas.”
“Watch out!” Nate shouted in warning, but it was too late.
Gonzalo drew his hand back quickly, as if a snake had bitten it. He switched between nursing his bloody pricked finger in his mouth and spewing out a string of curses that would have made the most hard-bitten mercenary blush. When he ran out of Spanish, the usually pious Catholic switched to the English he had learned in sixteenth-century London, giving Nate a profound respect for his forebearers, who had been true masters of profanity.
After a while Gonzalo, his face as dark as a storm cloud, finished his tirade and growled, “Beware the thorns.”
His friends, all natives of the continent, were well aware of the danger and nodded their commiseration. Ni-T’o, carefully avoiding the tree’s impressive defenses, reached up to cut a suitable branch down with his stone ax. Nate and Gonzalo marveled as they always did, at how such a primitive-looking tool could slice through wood with a sharpness equaling the finest steel.
“This is good wood for bows. The best,” Ni-T’o he said, showing it to Nate and Gonzalo. T’cumu was now casting around for his own branch. Nate and Gonzalo gave each other a sage look; the usual rivalry between the cousins had already begun, each would strive to surpass the other’s product in both form and function. The two men from the farther future thought that the competition was a good thing and quietly laid their bets on whose bow would shoot the best, Nate picking Ni-T’o, and Gonzalo favoring T’cumu.
Before they started back, both men cut four more branches each. T’cumu explained; “The green wood can be used, but it is not the best way. We will use it for our first tries, while these branches cure.”
When they reached Gonzalo’s house, both cousins excused themselves, and hurried off to their own homes to get started. Nate and Gonzalo shared a good laugh; the game was on, and they were certain that by morning each man would be ready to test their work, probably staying up all night if need be.
“Oh no, I forgot to tell them that they will also need to make longer arrows!” Gonzalo exclaimed.
“I think those two will figure that out pretty fast. Remember, you owe me a rabbit, skinned and ready for my cookpot when my man wins tomorrow!”
“Ha! You had best start hunting now, as it will be your rabbit that will be landing in my cookpot!”
The next morning the craftsmen arrived at the appointed meadow with their results wrapped in wool blankets. Neither of them glowed with their usual vim and vigor; it was plain they hadn’t slept much. Gonzalo and Nate gave each other a wry I knew it kind of smile.
“Good morning, my friends!” Gonzalo greeted them, hands held out in an effusive welcome, “How did it go?”
T’cumu and Ni-T’o both mumbled their greetings, then stood blinking in the always-too-bright Cretaceous morning sun.
“Well, let’s feed these poor fellows first, I figured they would neglect to eat anything,” Nate said, feeling a bit sorry for the overly-competitive cousins, “I brought along some of the breakfast the Ravens made. It’s pretty fine chow. Once these two have something in their bellies we can start the contest.”
After breakfast, the competitors were eager to get started. It was decided that they would test for accuracy at three distances, then see which bow could shoot the farthest. As expected, the contest was neck and neck, both men being able craftsmen and expert marksmen. With no clear lead as of yet, they began setting up the targets for the third distance. Suddenly, T’cumu, followed shortly by Ni-T’o, stopped what they were doing and cocked their heads, listening to something. Seeing this, Nate and Gonzalo did the same. In the distance, from the direction of the fort that guarded the entrance to the mesa, came the sound of drumming.
“It’s the alarm!” T’cumu cried out.
Without a further word all the men ran to the paddock. They saddled their mounts as quickly as they could, and rode hard for the edge of the mesa, followed by a troop of Raven warriors running behind as fast as they could.
“What’s going on?” Ni-t’o asked the flustered-looking guard perched in the high tower that overlooked the Drained Sea, affording a view all the way to Stone Wall Village on the horizon, the cousins’ original home.
“A group of people are coming this way, and they are being attacked by demons in the air! We have sent men with pikes down to help them, but it looks bad!”
“Where the hell is their guard?” Nate asked in an irritated tone, “Stone Wall should have sent a pike troop with them! Hurry up, get that gate open, and let the Raven Warriors following us through, too!” Nate ordered the guards manning the bridge gate. They jumped into quick action at the great chief’s command.
Gonzalo mused that the former US cavalry corporal was taking to the role of general quite well, but he had best not tell Nate that! Like most enlisted men, the Texan had little use for officers.
The clatter of hooves echoed on the rough-hewn planks as they rode as fast as they safely could down the sloping covered bridge. The bridge was covered because of the large flying creatures that haunted the crevasse, undoubtedly the same demons in the air troubling their visitors. They had almost knocked Nate off the treacherous log the new bridge had replaced. The gate on the far side opened before them, the signal having been passed. The trail had been much improved over the months since they had settled here, but it was still steep, with hairpin curves on the switchbacks. This was good from a defensive standpoint, but made getting up or down in a hurry a bit problematic.
On the sands below, about a quarter of a mile from the fortified log guard post at the bottom, people could be seen running and fighting for their lives. The monsters attacking them were indeed the same that had previously threatened Nate: huge flying beasts, a kind of reptilian bat with wide, leathery wings. They swooped down to slash with razor-sharp talons, while their long, beak-like mouths lined with small triangular teeth clacked and snapped at their hapless victims.
Finally, they reached the bottom at the Tilted Meadow Camp, a wide clearing among the oddly leaning trees that covered much of the slide that had allowed them access past the mesa’s sheer walls. From there they headed at all speed across the sun-baked sands of the Drained Sea toward the hapless wayfarers.
The pikemen from the guard station were already on the scene and were doing their best to fend the awful creatures off, but they couldn’t last long. One brave warrior had already gone down, and several of the shrieking, flapping beasts were eating him, snapping at each other as they tore his flesh off in chunks. The remains of several more people lay nearby, nothing left but torn clothing and red bones in pools of drying blood.
Gonzalo growled, a wild, carnal sound, as he freed his lance from its place on Flavio’s saddle.
“Demons from Hell! Your doom has come!” he roared, his voice taking on a terrifying tone that his friends had never heard from the repentant conquistador before, a sound that sent chills down their spine. Gonzalo urged his seasoned warhorse into an even faster gallop that the rest were hard pressed to keep up with.
It had been a long time since Gonzalo had found himself in such a state. It always amazed him that it was true; one actually does see red! During the long months he had spent with the tribal peoples he had grown most fond of them, finding them to be far more clever and civilized than the barbarous likes of his former leader, cruel Cortez, could ever understand. These gentle folk had adopted him as one of their own, and made him a great chief, an honor that to him far exceeded any knighthood or title he might have attained in his former time. He would not suffer another to die at the claws of such diabolical monsters, and he would avenge those who had fallen!
The mesa’s braves had formed a rough circle around the group of besieged travelers. Their long, sharp-tipped pikes held some of the flying terrors at bay, but there were too many of them. One of the warriors was knocked down by a massive talon that came swooping in from behind, stunning him, his pike dropping from his suddenly limp hands. He fell sprawling onto the dry, cracked sand, where another beast landed almost on top of him, took him by the leg in its fearsome toothed beak, and began to drag him off to the killing grounds. That was where Gonzalo laid his course, Flavio’s pounding hooves beat a war drum to match the wild thumping of his master’s heart.
“Die, fiend, die!” he bellowed. The creature looked up just in time to see Gonzalo’s lance skewer it through its scaly breast. He must have hit the heart, because it instantly slumped to the ground, lifeless. He would not be able to recover the lance easily, but his deadly steel broadsword was already in his hand. A long, toothed beak snapped at him, but Gonzalo dodged easily, and with an almost casual swing of his blade he separated the offending head from its goose-like neck. Another monster immediately took its place, and Gonzalo’s sword lunged into its eye, causing it to shriek and flail about, knocking another of its fellows over in the process. Meanwhile, the fallen warrior had regained his senses, and was using the opportunity provided by Gonzalo sowing mayhem among their attackers to pull the lance free from the still-twitching corpse.
“Great Chief!” he called out, holding the lance up to the former conquistador, now truly a knight slaying dragons. Gonzalo grinned, and motioned with his head at another winged demon that was moving toward them in the odd, hopping gait that required the knuckles at the bend of the wings to hit the ground while the body and back legs swung forward. This ungainly movement provided the perfect opportunity. Shrieking a war cry in the ancient tongue of his people, the brave nimbly dodged the snaking head and neck to bury the lance deep into its breast, just as Gonzalo had done, resulting in the same satisfying consequences; another monster down!
Momentarily free of attackers, Gonzalo wheeled his horse around to find a new target. The pikemen continued to protect the frightened travelers, who, by their dress, he identified as people from the City of the Pyramids. Nate was doing the same as he had, slicing the heads of the beasts from their bodies with his cavalry saber, while Ni-T’o and T’cumu took the opportunity to give their new longbows a real test. Gonzalo smiled as one after another fell from the sky, brought down by the powerful arrows.
The Raven Warriors had arrived, moving through the creatures still on the ground like a deadly wave, their stone axes and knives soaking the former seafloor with dark reptilian blood.
Gonzalo beheaded one more of the winged demons, and was about to go after another that was coming in for a landing nearby, when it suddenly hesitated and changed course, its enormous wings carrying it back into the sky. Only a few remained alive, circling above with angry squawks. At some unknown signal they all broke off the attack, and flew away in the direction of the crescent-shaped Mesa’s distant Northwestern tip.
“That’s where their roost is.” Nate said, his keen cavalry scout’s eyes watching the flock as they fled the scene, screeching with rage and frustration all the way home.
“I say we find that roost and clean it out.” T’cumu said, his young face grim, streaked with blood and sweat from the combat.
“Yeah, let’s do that.” Nate concurred. “I think they’ve more than worn out their welcome in these parts.”
With the danger past they all dismounted and began to help the wounded. Six people had been killed by the creatures; a warrior of the mesa whose absence would be keenly felt, and three men and two women from the city. The tribesmen solemnly wrapped their sad, savaged remains in skins, which they would carry up to the Mesa for proper burial. There were seventeen people left, all adults of both sexes. Ni-T’o had found their leader, and he and the captain of the Raven Warriors were engaged in rapid conversation with him. Gonzalo couldn’t quite catch what was being said over the general din. The kind-hearted Spaniard was busy cleaning the ragged bite marks left by one of the monsters on a young woman’s arm. She cried, but also bowed her head to him in nervous thanks, her eyes still wide and terrified by the ordeal.
In the tradition of his people, T’cumu searched for any useful thing that may come of a kill. He took a moment to slice a section of meat from one of the fallen creature’s thighs. He sniffed it, and with a look of disgust threw it to the ground.
“Smells like piss. Leave them for the crows, we can come back for the bones later.”
Almost as if T’cumu had summoned them, a murder of crows arrived from the mesa top and began happily feasting upon the carcasses of their fallen competitors.
Both Gonzalo and Nate noticed that none of the tribesmen performed the usual ritual of praying for the spirits of their kills, apparently the vicious flying demons were not deemed worthy of such an honor.
Ni-T’o inspected a carcass closely, then whistled for T’cumu to come have a look. There were several shortbow arrows embedded ineffectually in the thing’s thick, leathery flesh, souvenirs of when the beasts had attacked Nate on the log bridge.
“Look familiar?” Ni-T’o asked him with a grin, pulling one out with little effort.
“Yes, those are mine all right. And look here’s another!” It took him a minute to free the longbow arrow from the thing’s skull, the shot that had killed it. “It seems the longbow is a success!” he said, turning the shaft proudly in his hands.
Ni-T’o pulled one of his own longbow arrows from the chest of another fallen demon and held it up, still grinning.
The four great chiefs took their tired horses by their leads and walked along as the group began to march toward the safety of the mesa, now guarded by the brave warriors of the newly minted Mesa People.
“This was bound to happen.” Gonzalo said. “We have been very lucky so far, may the Lord continue to look after us!”
“Up until now most of the people who have come here have done so under the protection of pikemen from our allied villages.” Nate said, gazing back across the Drained Sea’s empty expanse. “Why did these people make the journey alone and undefended?”
“Their leader says that Stone Wall Village is under siege, and they had to flee before being captured themselves!” Ni-T’o told him.
“Under siege? By who?” Nate’s face was growing red with anger at the very thought of someone attacking their closest allies.
“They aren’t sure. It was a tribe they didn’t know, along with some men from the far future, like yourselves.”
“One is increasingly glad that we are putting together a military force.” Gonzalo said. “It seems the soldier’s life remains my fate, even here. At least now I fight for my friends and for a worthy cause.”
“The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous,” Nate said with no small pride. It had been his brainchild, and now it seemed they would see action sooner than expected. “Ready or not, we’ve got to get our guys up onto those crazy mesa cayuses, pronto!”
“We are ready to fight for our lands and people!” T’cumu said, also proud of what they were accomplishing. “The men will be eager for battle. Many of them once called Stone Wall home! Our horsemen will cut them down like a scythe through grass.”
“And now we have another advantage.” Ni-t’o said, holding up his new longbow. “These shoot as well as you said they would, my friends. With all our craftsmen working we can have a hundred more of them made by morning. Now we know that they can bring down the great beasts, and if need be . . .” He let the last trail off. Indeed, the longbows could kill a man, just as they had been designed to do in a land now millions of years in the future, a world that existed only in the memory of those who had been swept away back to these strange, antediluvian times.
“We will stand with you!” the captain of the Raven Warriors announced, his indigo-painted men murmuring in solemn agreement. “I know our great Raven Priestess will support you, our most trusted allies!”
“Indeed she will.” The Raven Priestess’s husband replied, nodding his appreciation to the captain. “I’m just trying to figure out how to stop her from coming with us.”