Article Category Archives: Time Spike

The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous, Part Six: Snakes in the Grass

 


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Time Spike: Old Habits

 


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The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous, Part Five: Charge!

 


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The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous, Part Four: War Drums at Dawn

 


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The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous, Part Three: Demons in the Air

ts-tfcotc-p3-banner

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.

ts-tfcotc-p3-lngbw“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.”

ts-tfcotc-p3-sgtr“It is a lovely thing, isn’t it?” Gonzalo said, reaching up to take one of the low-hanging branches in his hand.

“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.

ts-tfcotc-p3-ptrndnOn 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.”

****

 

The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous, Part Two: Lovebirds

The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous P2 Lovebirds banner

TS-TFCotC-P2tpsIt was the morning after the big party, and Nate’s head was still swimming from the crazy locoweed he had been smoking. He stumbled, bleary-eyed, out onto his front porch and looked at the colorful tipis dotting his meadow. Tipis . . . why are there tipis dotting my meadow? He was pretty sure they hadn’t been there the night before. A few yards away a young man tending a cook fire waved and called out to him in the city folk dialect. Nate was pretty sure he was asking if he wanted breakfast, which he was quite sure he did not, at least not while his head was still performing a slow spin. He managed to wave back and say what he thought was, “No thank you.”

“Well, it looks like I have company,” he grumbled to himself and went back into his cabin to wash his face and find a shirt. He emerged again a bit later, still pretty dizzy, but slightly more presentable. Walking very carefully to prevent himself from tipping over, he arrived at the horse paddock, where he saw Ni-T’o and T’cumu watching the Raven Priestess ride Oklilinchi around in a circle at a canter. He stopped in his tracks, rubbed his eyes, and looked again to be sure. Yes, it was indeed the Raven Priestess riding Oklilinchi around in a circle at a canter. She was grinning like a kid on Christmas morning, waving merrily to him as she went around for another loop.

“This just keeps getting better.” He took a deep breath before continuing on, trying to control his growing irritation.

Arriving at the gate, Ni-T’o and T’cumu both gave him looks that would make the most sheepish of sheep look as bold as a lion. Nate shook his head at them in mild disgust.

“What happened to keeping the horses secret, fellas?” he asked in an icy tone that sent shivers down his friend’s spines even in the morning’s growing heat.

Ni-T’o and T’cumu looked at each other, their bronze faces taking on a subtle shade of red. T’cumu shook his head, too embarrassed to speak, his pleading eyes asking his older cousin to do the talking. Ni-T’o nodded resignedly and took a deep breath.

“This morning in the village,” he said in his ever-improving English, “the Raven Priestess came to us and asked us where you live.” He paused, suffering under his friend’s withering gaze.

“Yes? So?”

“We tried to put her off, but she was very . . .” he searched for the word.

T’cumu chimed in to help, “Persistent!”

“Very!” T’cumu concluded.

Nate had never seen these proud braves look so meek. He had to stop himself from chuckling as his initial anger turned to pity for his usually indomitable friends. He certainly understood what they had been up against; the Raven Priestess had a real talent for getting her way, and he was sure it was just as much brains as beauty behind it. He took a deep breath and said, “And so you led her, and all her people, here, where they have set up camp in my meadow.”

The two of them nodded slowly like a couple of school kids getting a scolding from their teacher.

“You really couldn’t just say no, could you?”

Ni-T’o spread his hands wide in an imploring gesture. “We tried to, but Nate, she is The Raven Priestess!

Now Nate did start laughing, much to the relief of his friends. “Yes, she certainly is, and then some! And look, here she comes now, out for a Sunday ride on T’cumu’s little cayuse! Isn’t that nice?”

T’cumu and Ni-T’o were still embarrassed at having lost a test of wills to the strange and beautiful woman, who Nate was beginning to be sure possessed some kind of magical power over men, especially himself. Even so, they began laughing, too.

“T’cumu, how in Sam Hill did you get her up on that little beast, anyway? No one can come within a yard of her without taking a beating!” Nate asked, already knowing the answer as the Raven Priestess brought her mount to a halt in front of them just as if she’d been raised in the saddle. She tousled Oklilinchi’s stiff mane while the formerly wild horse snuffled contentedly.

“I tried to warn her, but she walked right up to Oklilinchi and started to pet her! Oklilinchi loves her!” T’cumu told him, as he looked on with amazement.

“Of course it does. After all, she is The Raven Priestess!” Nate said, managing a smile for his new best girl as he helped her down. He had never seen her so happy. The grin on her face just about stopped his heart.

“Well, the cat’s out of the bag,” Nate said, “now a city folk leader knows how to ride. What other surprises do you have for me this morning?”

T’cumu and Ni-T’o glanced at each other again, a look he had seen before . . . when was it? Just last night at the party. Memories of the event began to coalesce in the smoky haze still drifting through his brain.

Just then, the Raven Priestess launched herself into his arms and planted one of her delicious kisses on his lips. There was no point in struggling, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to. Still, there was something niggling at the back of his brain, and out of the corner of his eye he saw his friends conferring in whispered tones. Nate’s comprehension of their tribe’s tongue had improved a great deal in the months they had been together, and he thought he caught T’cumu saying something to the effect of, “He doesn’t know, does he?”

Nate gently broke off the kiss, shifting his paramour over to his side where she stuck to him like glue, head resting on his chest, her long, lush hair smelling sweetly of pine and wildflowers.

“Doesn’t know what? Just what is it he doesn’t know?” he demanded, his general irritation with events returning. This was followed by a long silence. “You fellas better start spilling it! Something’s up, and I am beginning to get a bit ornery.”

This time it was T’cumu’s turn to do the talking, as his cousin gave him an insistent shove forward.

“Well, something happened last night.” he said in Spanish, which he was still more comfortable with, and Nate fluent in. Another long pause followed.

“And what was that?” Nate prodded him, working hard to keep his tone level. His head had stopped swimming, but now it was flying around the plaza, cavorting with the Raven Priestess. He remembered her asking him to join her in that dance, and a mighty hush from the crowd as he took her hand . . . .

“Well, something happened last night, and it happened to you.”

“It happened to me.” Nate said, his voice hollow and dry.

“Yes, it did. And not just to you. It also happened to someone else.”

“I see. And who else did it happen to?

“To her.” T’cumu said, pointing at the radiantly beaming Raven Priestess with his chin in the way of his people.

Nate looked down at her exquisite face, her amber eyes shining. His head had started swimming again and spinning and dancing and flying, all at the same time, and little purple spots were beginning to form in the edge of his vision. He could barely find his voice to ask “Just what was it that happened to us?”

T’cumu stood frozen. His mouth was open, but unable to move to form words. Ni-T’o was the same, his eyes twitching sporadically.

Nate turned back to the Raven Priestess, who looked up at him and said in perfect Spanish, “We got married!”

Nate nodded, and smiled at her as the purple spots closed in and turned to black. The last thing he saw were her luminous eyes before it all went dark and he dropped to the ground like a stone, out cold.

****

“Nate! Wake up!” Nate really didn’t want to do that, but the voice was very insistent, so he opened one bleary gray eye to see Gonzalo’s worried countenance hovering over him.

“All right already, I’m awake.”

“Oh, we were most worried! We sent someone to fetch the wise man, who it is said has healing powers.”

“You wouldn’t let that witch-doctor anywhere near me, would you?”

Gonzalo laughed, relieved to see that his friend was coming to his senses.

Nate got up with Gonzalo and Ni-T’o’s help and looked around.

“Where is she?”

“She said she needed to commune with the raven spirit.” Ni-T’o told him, his face drawn with concern. “She was surprised by your reaction. It is difficult to say this, but I think she was a bit upset. ”

“Yeah, well swooning over a woman is a new one on me. So is being married. I had way too much of that damn locoweed last night. I’m not myself this morning.”

“We are so sorry about the wedding. We weren’t sure ourselves if you knew what you were doing. You know so much about our ways, but it seems you didn’t know about that.” Ni-To’ said, his face full of regret.

T’cumu stepped forward and said, “Nate, I must tell you I do not think it was the Raven Priestess’s intention to trick you. She would not choose a husband lightly and would do so only if she felt strongly about you.”

“Yeah, I know, she’s a great girl, and I can’t deny I have some pretty strong feelings for her. I just wasn’t expecting to get hitched so soon. She’s a real catch, but I don’t know what she sees in a dusty old cowhand like me. I guess I’d best go after her. Which way did she go?”

Ni-T’o pointed toward the northwest.

“Well, she can’t get too far ahead of me on foot. Give me until noon, then come out looking for us.”

“Perhaps we should come with you now?” Gonzalo asked, eager to help.

“No thanks, friend, some things a man has got to do on his own, and patching things up with his woman is one of them.”

Ni-T’o fetched Poppy for him, then he and T’cumu put her tackle on, shooing off their still peaked-looking friend as he protested the help. Gonzalo dashed over to the nearby camp, returning a few minutes with some kind of lunch wrapped in corn husks and a water skin, which Nate was most grateful for. Nate climbed on and set off at a trot in the direction Ni-T’o had pointed.

****

An hour had passed by and she was still ahead of him, although he was sure he was on the right track. The signs of her passing were easy enough to read for a former cavalry scout raised in the wilds of Texas. He wanted to move at a quicker pace but was afraid to lose her trail.

“Damn, that woman moves as fast as a pronghorn! I should have caught up to her by now!”

It wasn’t too surprising. She had amply demonstrated that she was an athlete without peer, both on the battlefield and the dance floor.

Nate slowed Poppy down to a walk so he could study the landscape. There was a low wall of earth ahead of them. He had learned that abrupt changes of terrain like this were evidence of the strange forces that had brought chunks of land here from different times. The familiar rolling hills and meadows dotted with copses of trees ended at a flat, shiny wall of of razor-straight dirt just like the mesa’s, but only a few feet high, except where a hillside had been sliced through. The land beyond was more level, drier, and with sparser trees. The Raven Priestess’s trail lead through a coarse, yellowish grass he hadn’t seen before, so Nate followed. This was unexplored territory, and he began to worry. There was no telling what kind of creatures inhabited these flats; the New New World was always full of surprises.

TS-TFCotC-gmphr“Well, there’s something you don’t see everyday.” Nate stopped Poppy to stare at a troop of creatures roughly the size and shape of elephants, but with four tusks each and a trunk that was wider and shorter than that of the animals he had seen in picture books. They were busy using their lower tusks to root through the bottom of a stagnant pond, in search of whatever delicacies were hidden beneath the greenish muck. Much to his relief, the Raven Priestess’s tracks gave them a wide berth. At least she had some sense in her. Even so, he had an uneasy feeling. This country was a lot less friendly-looking than what they had found on the mesa so far.

Finally, he set eyes on his new wife, standing on a lone boulder with her arms stretched up to the heavens, chanting loudly. Having shed her robe she was practically naked, clad in only some very scant undergarments and jewelry. Normally the sight would have been a pleasant one, but Nate knew things weren’t right between them now. He had clearly hurt her feelings and felt terrible about it, hoping he could make amends with the strangely fascinating woman who had blown into his life like a warm wind in the night from a far-away realm.

Not wanting to disturb her too abruptly, he circled her once at a distance, checking the bleak plain for critters. He was sure he had caught her eye, but she continued her chanting, so he climbed off Poppy, who promptly started to sniff around for anything worth eating. The local breed of grass didn’t look all that appetizing, but Poppy helped herself to some anyway. Nate walked slowly toward the Raven Priestess, hands out in a signal of contrition and wearing the best ‘I’m sorry’ face he could muster.

The Raven Priestess, not missing a beat of her lamentations, regarded him coldly for a few minutes as she continued, letting him suffer under her baleful glare. Nate took off his hat and bowed his head, waiting for her to give him a chance to speak his piece. After a while her voice began to take on a warmer tone, and finally her singing turned to laughter.

“You look terrible!” she told him in Spanish.

“I feel terrible,” he answered in kind. “I never meant to hurt your feelings. I smoked way too much of that loco-weed and was about half out of my mind and didn’t feel well at all this morning.”

“I could tell.”

“So, when did you learn to speak Spanish?”

“Since I first met Many-Mouths all those months ago. I made him teach me every word he knew. Then, when the Schullerville people came on their visits, one of them spoke Spanish, and she taught me more, along with English.” Her Spanish sounded clear and fluent, with a pleasant accent that echoed her own musical tongue.

“Really? English, too?”

“Yup. How about that, pardner?” she answered in a fair imitation of his Texas twang.

Nate, started to feel a bit better since things looked to be on the mend. He smiled and said “You speak it right purty, too, ma’am. I guess you’ve been listening to me and Gonzalo all along.”

“From the first time I saw you at the Sun Temple. I knew you fancied me then. Do you still now?”

“Yup, I sure do. I’m sorry about what happened in the paddock. Like I said, all that smoke last night made me woozy.”

“I, too, am sorry. I did not mean to trick you! I have never before dealt with foreigners such as yourself. It seemed that you had learned so much of our ways I thought you knew what I asked of you!”

“Well, I am a dang fool, and there’s no cure for that, but no, I just didn’t know.”

She fixed him with an intense stare, studying him from behind the curtain of her long, ebony hair for what seemed like a rather long time. Nate squirmed a bit under the scrutiny, but held his ground.

“And, if you had understood what I offered, would you have still taken my hand?” she asked, her voice pensive.

Nate paused, knowing he didn’t have long to make his answer. It only took him a second or two.

“Why yes, I do believe I would have. I always figured I would get married someday, and I sure didn’t think it would be to someone as beautiful and clever as you!”

She smiled, but her expression was still unsure. “Even so, it is not too late for me to release you from your vow. I will give you one last chance to regain that freedom some men crave so. Do you really want to be my husband, Nate?”

Before Nate could answer, Poppy gave a loud snort. Nate knew that sound meant his faithful mare was nervous about something, and it usually wasn’t anything good. Poppy trotted over to him, then pointed her snout to the west. Her ears perked up and her muzzle tightened, signs of distress Nate had learned to take most seriously. Nate and the Raven Priestess followed her stare to something coming their way out of the far distance.

“Is that one of those lizard demons like T’cumu killed?” Nate asked, his keen eyes straining to make it out.

“No, I think not. It’s . . . it’s some kind of a bird!”

“Sure enough! That ain’t no road runner—it’s bigger than a man. Look at the size of it!

“Nate, it has the beak of an eagle!” she told him, a tone of warning coming into her voice.

“Get up on Poppy with me, now!” Nate climbed onto Poppy’s back as fast as he could and stretched a hand out to help her up, but she had already leaped on behind him as nimbly as a sparrow hops from branch to branch. With her safely mounted, he gave Poppy the kind of nudge that meant move fast, now, and cried out, “Yah!”

Poppy took off like a shot, not needing her rider’s command to tell her what her instincts were already screaming at her. She let Nate point her in the direction he wanted her to go in, trusting his judgment, and then went like the wind.

“Nate, it is catching up to us!” A shrill note sounded in her usually musical voice, the crow call of alarm.

TS-TFCotC-bgbrdNate turned his head to see that this was indeed the case—it was only twenty yards behind them now, and Nate had been chased by enough critters to know it was gunning for them. Now that he could get a better look at it, he realized that it was more monster than bird. Its head was bigger than a horse’s, most of it taken up by a massive, curved, bright-orange beak with a sharp, predatory tip at the end. It was covered in gray feathers dotted with turquoise, and stood at least eight feet tall. It ran upright on muscular, pebbled, orange-skinned legs, each foot ending in three heavy claws. Every inch of the thing was powerful and made to kill. Nate’s stomach took a leap as he realized it was faster than Poppy and would catch up with them soon. He gave Poppy another nudge, but she was already going all out in a headlong gallop. This was as fast as she could carry them, and it wasn’t going to be enough. Nate drew his saber, readying himself for the inevitable.

He felt the ever-resourceful Raven Priestess release his bow and quiver from his back. She was limber enough to turn in her seat and take a shot at the thing. It was coming so fast she only had one chance. The arrow flew true, but the creature’s eyes were as sharp as the eagle it in some ways resembled, and it dodged at the last second, the razor-sharp flint arrowhead only grazing its oddly diminutive wing. It wasn’t a serious injury, but just enough to make it cry out in an angry, shrieking squawk, a resounding tone of menace that sent shivers down their backs.

“Nate, it’s coming up on your right!” Now, in a moment of dire distress, the Raven Priestess’s voice was strangely calm, which made Nate love her all the more.

The thing had caught up to them now and was trying to take a chunk out of Poppy’s flank. Nate reined the mare over hard in the opposite direction, and they drew apart, the killer bird shooting a few yards ahead and away from them, unable to slow down. It made a course correction quickly enough, and this time headed straight at their side, its head down like a battering ram. Nate tried to take a swing at it, but the monstrous predator was too fast. It rammed into Nate’s ribs hard enough to knock him off Poppy. As he left his horse’s back he caught a glimpse of the creature pausing, looking surprised as Nate went one way and the horse another. It must have thought them all to be one big animal! This confusion gave Poppy a much-needed head start as she surged forward, lightened by the loss of her load. The rapacious hunter ignored Nate and went after Poppy, the larger game.

He had been unhorsed a few times in his life, and he knew how to roll, but it was a hard landing in the rough, yellow grass. His body took a jarring hit, flooding him with pain. His entire right side throbbed with agony, but he sprang to his feet anyway, saber ready.

Poppy continued her desperate flight, her pursuer closing fast, beak clacking eagerly in anticipation of sinking into her succulent-looking flesh. The Raven Priestess had jumped off Poppy when Nate went down, landing nimbly on her feet, of course, and stood several yards away cocking another arrow. She let fly, and this time it sank deep into the monster’s upper thigh, causing it to lurch in pain, and turn its attention toward her. She let fly with another, hitting it in the side, but only deep enough to enrage it. The bird made a skidding turn, then, to Nate’s utter horror, charged its tormenter, who stood her ground, notching yet another arrow. It was sure to reach her before she could shoot, so Nate started shouting at the top of his lungs, waving his saber and running straight at it. I shall die a fool, but at least I shall die a brave fool. He hoped he could buy his new bride a little time. Maybe she could get off a shot that would finish it if she were lucky.

Nate’s ploy worked. The creature accepted his challenge, shifting its course toward him. He stood firm in a warrior’s stance, saber at the ready. There was no escaping a beast of such power and speed, he just hoped he could get a good slice in before the thing tore him to shreds. He braced himself.

The Raven Priestess watched the thing approach her husband with the keen eyes of a hunter. The monstrous bird was well distracted, so at just the right moment she lunged with lightning reflexes, making one of her incredible dancer’s leaps right onto the thing’s back. One slender, but deceptively strong, arm circled its neck while she used the other to plunge one of Nate’s arrows deep into its feather-covered ear, pushing it in so deeply the bloodied tip emerged from the opposite side. With a last, surprised squawk, the thing fell dead at Nate’s feet with an earth-shaking thump, as the Raven Priestess jumped clear, landing gracefully nearby. Grinning fiercely, she went over to it and gave it a nudge with her foot to make sure it was dead. There was no life left in it, and she began to stroke the feathers of its massive head with a strange kind of affection, chanting softly in the way he had seen Ni-T’o and T’cumu do after making a kill.

When she was finished, she turned to Nate, her face flushed with excitement.

“Nate, we are so fortunate!”

“Yes, we are! I thought I was a goner for sure, but you saved my skin, and I am mighty obliged! You are the, bravest, toughest, and craziest woman I have ever seen!”

She smiled, but shrugged the compliment off as if it were all just in a day’s work for the Raven Priestess.

“Yes, I am glad we are safe, but there is more than that. When I came to this place my mind was full of shadows, and I sought clarity. I asked the Raven Spirit for a sign, and here it is! He sent the Great Running Eagle to test us, and we have passed! Now I know for sure that I made the right choice in coming here and choosing you, who would willingly sacrifice yourself to protect me!” She stood before him, breathing a little hard from all the exertion and excitement, her mostly bare, supple body glistening with sweat, eyes bright, like twin suns shining on a bronze sea. Nate found it hard to catch his breath, and just stood staring at her, captivated and unable to speak.

The Raven Priestess laughed at his sudden loss of words, then cocked her head at him. “I believe you have yet to answer my question, Nate.”

Nate came to and chuckled. Now that he knew things were all right between them, he paused and rubbed his stubbled chin for a moment in contemplation.

“Oh yes, that, well, let’s see,” he stalled coyly.

That earned him a quick poke in the stomach, not too hard considering he had just taken a painful fall, but enough to get his attention.

“Okay, okay! Yes! In English, the words we say are ‘I do’, and yes, I do! Now, are you sure you want to be married to a scruffy old scoundrel like me?”

“Yes! ‘I do!’ I have felt it since I first lay eyes on you, and then became sure as we faced the Rattlesnake Priests together. At last, a man who could stir my heart! A courageous warrior, who also knew compassion! I want you very, very much, my husband!” And with that she flung herself into his arms and straddled him as she kissed him.

After a long blissful time the kiss ended, and Nate began to laugh softly.

“What is so funny?” she asked with a shy expression on her face that nearly stopped his heart.

“Well, when I first got to this here time and place I was talking with the soldiers I used to serve with, and the question came up as to what kind of women might be available for brides. Back in my time, different kinds of people didn’t mix much, but some did, and I said that I wouldn’t mind being the swain of an injun princess. And now, here I am, married to the closest thing to one you could find anywhere, or any time, for that matter! I figure I am a pretty darn lucky fella!”

“Indeed you are! I am not sure exactly what an ‘injun princess’ is, but it must be something special if I am one!”

“The word ‘special’ doesn’t even begin to describe you.” Nate paused, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I just realized, I don’t even know your real name! I can’t very well call my own wife ‘The Raven Priestess’ all the time, can I?”

She smiled, and took his hands in hers.

“I have many names, some so secret that I must not tell even you, Nate, although one day I most likely will. And there are also some I am not sure you would be able to pronounce yet, although your use of our tongue has improved greatly.”

She pondered for a moment.

“I know! It has been so long since I’ve heard it, I almost forgot! It was my name when I was but a child, not really my real name, but one used by those who loved me best. Do you understand?

“Sure, a nickname! My mother used to call me ‘Natty’ when I was just a wee tyke, and you sure had better not tell the fellas that!”

“Natty? I like it, perhaps I should call you that?” she teased, eliciting a mournful grimace from him. “Very well, only when we are alone together. As for me, please call me Fala.”

“Fala! Why that sure is pretty! What does it mean? I’ll bet it means ‘raven’!”

“It means ‘crow’, actually. I was not yet big enough to be a raven.”

They both laughed and went back to kissing. This was just starting to progress into something more when Poppy nudged them both urgently, having determined it was safe to return to their sides. They broke off their embrace to comfort the still-frightened horse, petting her until she was calm and content enough to return to sampling the coarse local grass.

“I suppose it’s best we get moving.” Nate said, his voice holding some regret that whatever had been happening had been interrupted. “There could be more of those things, so let’s beat it on home.”

Fala took his hand and squeezed it tightly for a moment, a mysterious smile on her lips that held the promise of many joys to come.

“Yes, let’s go home.” She paused for a moment to relish that last word, then said “But first, we have a bit of work to do.” She turned to the dead creature lying nearby.

“Dinner?” Nate asked, reaching for the long, skinning knife he kept on his belt.

“Indeed! There is much good meat here, we shall enjoy it as we celebrate tonight!” she took out a knife of her own, made of flint, but even sharper than Nate’s steel edge, and began sawing away at the thing’s neck. Nate watched, fascinated. When she reached the neck bone she severed it with surgical precision. Nate groaned, realizing now what she probably had in mind.

“Please tell me you aren’t going to have that crazy old Ninak-Mkateewa make you a hat out of that thing’s head!”

Fala, every bit still The Raven Priestess, rolled her eyes and shook her head in amusement at her new husband’s lack of understanding of the finer things.

“Why of course I am! There is great power in this head, it is a gift from the gods! We faced The Eagle That Runs, and lived!”

****

When they arrived back at Nate’s cabin, a sea of relieved faces met them. All had been worried, but none had dared intrude upon Great Chief Nate and the Raven Priestess’s personal affairs. T’cumu, Ni-T’o and Gonzalo gave Nate a good tousling, overjoyed that he had returned safely and that things had been repaired between their friend and his paramour.

“So, are you . . . ?” Gonzalo asked, but trailed off shyly.

“Yes, we are married. Who would have ever thought that Nathan Theseus Tucker would win himself a bona fide injun princess? How about that, huh?”

“Congratulations!” Gonzalo told him, then hugged him tightly until Nate had to pry the effusive Spaniard off.

Ni-T’o and T’cumu gave their congratulations, exceedingly relieved to be off the hook for not warning Nate that he was about to enter into matrimony. Then they noticed the massive bird strapped to a woven-branch travois.

“What is that?” they asked, admiring the pretty gray and turquoise feathers.

That is dinner. It was almost the other way around, but my lovely bride saved my skin. It was a pretty close shave. Please see that it gets cooked up nice, and we’ll all share a drumstick. Anyway, I’ll tell you the whole tale later, but right now I ache all over and need to go get cleaned up.” His bride took that cue to join him at his side, grinning from ear to ear. They walked arm in arm to Nate’s cabin, went inside, closed the door, and then the shutters. No one was too surprised when they didn’t emerge for dinner, and the Raven Priestess’s cook set aside a generous portion of the delicious roasted bird for them to have for their breakfast.

To Be Continued . . .

The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous, Part One


Part One: A Conspiracy of Ravens
Fort Lookout, Mesa Top

Nate Tucker was kissing the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was the Raven Priestess, worshiped by her people. A crowd of onlookers surrounded them, which apparently didn't bother her one bit. He could hear Gonzalo's soft laughter nearby. As might be expected, his friend was greatly amused by the unexpected show. Yes indeed, it was turning out to be quite a day! Nate was no longer sure what day that was, or what month, or even what year, except that it was millions and millions of years before any of them would be born. All of that might once have made him doubt his sanity, but now it was just another day in the Cretaceous.

The only thing that mattered at the moment was the woman in his arms, the veritable living goddess he had dreamed of every night since they had met. After a long, blissful time, their lips parted, and the Raven Priestess laughed in her odd, musical, way. Her smoky, amber eyes locked on his, a silent promise that this was nowhere near over. She stroked his stubbled cheek gently before breaking their embrace.

Now that the kiss had ended, Nate looked around at a sea of smiling faces, his adopted people and their visitors from the City of the Pyramids, all enjoying the spectacle. Coming to his senses, he began to blush. Gonzalo walked up to clap him affectionately on the back.

"Ah, Nate, what is your secret?" he asked teasingly, much amused by his friend's discomfiture, "Everywhere we go, it seems some lovely woman is kissing you, while I, poor Gonzalo, once a man much sought after by the fair maidens of sunny Seville, am forced to watch your amorous adventures while standing alone and unwanted. The aching of my broken heart is more than I can bear, I am beyond consolation." The twinkle in his brown eyes belied any real suffering.

"Well then, maybe it's time you joined the priesthood," Nate growled at him, now embarrassed by all the attention, and supremely unamused by Gonzalo's teasing.

"You cut me to the quick! Yes, while it is true that I am God's humble servant, I have also been a terrible sinner. I fear the holy fathers would reject my request to join their ranks, alas! Or would, that is, if I could find any holy fathers in these devil-infested realms."

Gonzalo's eyes narrowed then, focusing on something behind Nate, and his smile soured into a frown. "Ah, speaking of devils, here comes one now!"

Ninak-Mkateewa, self-appointed wise man of the Mesa People and general irritant, had arrived in all his savage glory. The venerable and ancient madman had applied a fresh coat of pigment to his body, his trademark blue-black dotted with white stars. Today he had added a formidable-looking piece of ceremonial headgear to his regalia, fashioned from the head of the lizard-demon T'cumu had killed. The lower jaws were slung around the wise man's neck, while the upper jaws jutted out over his forehead.

“He looks like a man swallowed by a snake!” Gonzalo whispered to Nate.

“Wouldn't that be nice? Perhaps it could be arranged,” Nate replied, and they shared a conspiratorial smile at the thought of the crazy old witch-doctor meeting such a fate. Ninak-Mkateewa rarely missed an opportunity to harass them with his caustic wit, and took a great deal of perverse pleasure in making a nuisance of himself.

The wise man shook his rattle fiercely to draw attention to himself, which wasn't really necessary since all eyes were upon him, some in wonder, some in terror. His beady, black eyes squinted at the Raven Priestess from their wrinkled nests, studying her in an exceptionally rude fashion. He began a sideways, high-stepping dance toward her, growling and muttering all the while in menacing tones. Her guard began to move forward to block his approach, but she held them back with an almost imperceptible shake of her head. She smiled at the bizarre old man as he closed in on her, unruffled by his challenge. Nate thought she resembled a hawk studying a field mouse.

"I think our madman has met his match this time," Gonzalo said as he watched, fascinated by the proceedings.

"I'm thinking he has no idea what he's getting into. If he tries anything funny she'll tear his fool head off!"

"Oh, I do so hope so, may the Lord God forgive me!" Gonzalo crossed himself for good measure. They watched the unfolding drama with eagerness, wondering how this test of wills would play out.

Ninak-Mkateewa came in brazenly close, testing her composure. If anything, she was beginning to look a bit bored with the so-called wise man's performance. He began to dance a slow circle around her, rudely sniffing the air, rattles shaking like an enraged diamondback. The Raven Priestess remained undaunted, not bothering to turn as he passed behind her, an aloof smile on her face.

The crowd was silent, barely breathing as the confrontation went on. Gonzalo almost found himself pitying the irascible old fellow. . . almost. He had seen the Raven Priestess fight; if she chose to unleash her wrath on the impertinent wise man, it would be the end of him.

Ninak-Mkateewa completed his circle. The rattling ceased as he came to a stop directly in front of her, eyes locking with hers in a staring contest, neither of them moving or blinking. The Raven Priestess was no longer smiling. After what seemed like a very long time to those gathered, the old man began to laugh. After a moment, the Raven Priestess began to laugh, too, and then, to everyone's amazement, they took each other's hands and started to walk together like old friends out for a stroll, the wise man leading her forward with chivalrous aplomb. Her guard fell in step behind, then the entire gathering. Nate and Gonzalo just stood there for a while, digesting what had happened.

"Well, that was a bit disappointing," Nate said, scratching the back of his neck.

"I must confess, I was hoping she would put the imp in his place," Gonzalo agreed.

"I was hoping she would wring his scrawny neck, and it would serve him right."

"Alas, one cannot have everything. Come now, my friend, the day is still young, and I am sure more drama and wonder awaits us."

"Oh, how wonderful!" Nate replied without meaning it at all. “I bet there's going to be a big hootenanny tonight. That ought to be interesting."

“Do you mean a celebration? That should be fun, don't you think?” Gonzalo's face filled with excitement.

“I'll stick with interesting for now.”

 


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Time Spike: The Mysterious Mesa, Part Eight: The Promised Land

TSThe Mysterious Mesa 8 banner

Mesa Top Camp

 

T’cumu approached the frightened young mare slowly, an offering of freshly picked berries in his hand.

“Come now, Oklilinchi, I know you are hungry. Come to me my friend.” He spoke in the soft tones he knew the mostly-wild animal liked to hear, even if they as yet held no meaning to her. At some point he hoped she would come to understand a few simple words, as his friend’s horses did. She snorted, and shied away, backing up a few feet, but not as far as the time before. T’cumu was patient, eventually he would regain her trust, there was no hurry. After all, he had plenty of time. What was a few hours to someone who had traveled millions of years into the past, if what his friend Nate had told him was, indeed, true. The very idea of a ‘million’ was new to T’cumu. His own people didn’t even have words for numbers of such immensity. It wasn’t until Nate had pointed to the myriad stars of the night sky that he had grasped the concept.

“As many years as you see stars, my friend, that is how far back we’ve come. It’s a younger, deadlier world, one that I believe mankind was not meant to see. Yet here we are,” the man from a land called Texas had told him and his cousin, Ni-T’o as they rode through the night away from the blood-stained ground of the City of the Mound folk.

Thinking of his friends, he hoped their mission to his village would be a success, and that they would return soon. It was lonely up on the mesa without them. For now, though, he had his recalcitrant little horse for company, and smiled as he gained another step closer to her. She was eyeing those berries with increasing interest. Sooner or later she would give in to the temptation. Then he would ride her again, and be the first of his people to have a horse of his own, a very useful thing indeed, in the New New World.

An hour later, T’cumu had won his horse’s heart again, and was riding her around the meadows near camp. Oklilinchi behaved very well for him, and he was able to steer her just as he had learned to do with the other horses.

“You saved my life, little friend! It would be nice not to be chased by ravenous monsters for a while. Let’s hope the rest of our day will be calm and peaceful. Now, what say we go have a look around? We need to find a good place to build a village.”

TS-TMM-8-mdwT’cumu rode in the opposite direction of the log bridge, into new, unexplored territory. After another five miles of the same mix of grassland and leafy copses of trees, he saw a range of low hills that looked like they might run all the way across the mesa’s crescent, which he thought might be near its widest point. That was his next destination. His people had learned long ago to take advantage of the terrain, and to always keep to the high ground.

Not long later, his horse had climbed the mellow grade easily enough, and they stood at the top of the highest hill. From this vantage point T’cumu could see the mesa’s far tip, and the ocean beyond. Between that and the hills lay a rugged, rocky region, covered in thick forest. That was good. Such a place would contain different resources than those they had discovered so far. The mesa had proven bountiful in its gifts. Despite its rather strange wildlife, it was the closest thing to their former home that they had found, so far.

T’cumu made a careful survey of the hill top. It was wide and flat, with a low depression between it and the next highest peak. It was nearly perfect, exactly the kind of place they could build their village, with plenty of room for expansion along the range’s summits. In his mind’s eye he could see the peaked thatch roofs, and the clay-daubed walls, smoke rising from cook fires, happy children gamboling about here and there. It would be a good place to live, a reprieve from the terrors that surrounded them in the lands below. He looked longingly at the unexplored territory on the range’s far side, but he had to get back to the bridge to wait for his people to arrive. Further exploration would have to wait for another day. With a click of his tongue and a nudge of his knee he sent his mount back down the hillside, most satisfied with his findings.

“We have found a good place, my little friend. We will know happiness here,” he said, scratching Oklilinchi’s bushy mane.

****

Gonzalo leveled his lance, as he waited for the charging dragon to draw near. He and the other horsemen, Nate and Ni-T’o, remained outside the circle of long spears, ready to make their move if the line didn’t hold. He allowed himself a small smile at the sight of the old wise-man, Ninak-Mkateewa, dancing around behind the spear-men, banging his drum and shouting encouragement. The women joined in the dance, brandishing their torches in a very menacing manner. The wise-man was a contrary old reprobate, but he could be helpful, and even thoughtful, at times, and so Gonzalo had grown rather fond of him despite himself. He whispered a fervent prayer that none of these good people who had given him shelter in this nightmarish land would come to harm.

The creature was close enough that they could see it in detail now, it was even larger than the one that he and Nate had managed to kill, earning them the respect and friendship of their tribesmen friends. The monster’s fang-filled maw gaped hungrily, frothing with saliva. Its massive muscles moved beneath the strangely beautiful pebbled hide, brightly striped in sky-blue and yellow. It bellowed again, an ear-splitting sound at close range. The tribe held their ground, spears at the ready.

The men facing the monster were obviously terrified, but they were a courageous folk by nature, and the wise-man’s drumming helped gird their resolve. They grimly held their ground as it loomed over them. Just before it came into range of their long spears, a volley of flaming arrows flew, striking its chest and head, but missing its eyes. None of them pierced the tough hide deeply, but they burned, and the creature bellowed with rage, using its smaller forelimbs to knock the arrows free. It glared at the massed men with its baleful yellow eyes, and considered for a moment. Despite whatever fear it had for fire, and whatever pain the burning arrows had caused it, the need for food won out. It charged the line.

The circle moved toward it, just as they had trained to do, the two closest spears embedding in its chest, those either side catching it in the ribs. The creature lowered its head, knocking the spears aside with a mighty shake, but made the mistake of opening its mouth—five arrows flew into its maw, causing it to screech and rear up. This gave the men the chance to press their slim advantage. More spear-men moved forward, pushing their razor-sharp flint-pointed tips into the softer flesh of its underbelly. The monster began to retreat then, shaking its head furiously as it tried to remove the agony of a mouth-full of burning arrows, chewing and chomping them into little bits that fell smoldering to the ground.

“Must be a bit too spicy for him,” Nate remarked casually.

“The natives do tend to have a liberal hand with those chili peppers.” Gonzalo grinned.

Just then, Ninak-Mkateewa came dancing through the front line, beating a mad tattoo on his drum and shouting what were undoubtedly appalling insults at the monster. The tribesmen were so surprised no one thought to stop him. It didn’t take long for him to get the creature’s attention, and it began to move toward the not-very-wise-after-all, old man with a curious cock of its head and a hungry look. Here, at last, was some easy meat!

“God damn that fool witch-doctor, tarnation!” Nate shouted, kicking Poppy into a gallop, Gonzalo following suit, lance at the ready.

Ni-T’o had seen the old man’s foolish action first, and was already on his way. He was behind the monster, and rode battle-hardened Bella past the thing at a gallop before it had a chance to react. The creature was fast, but thankfully, horses were faster.

“Ninak-Mkateewa! You are in danger!” the fearless warrior shouted as he closed on him, the beast in hot pursuit.

“I’m not afraid of any demons! This fiend shall feel my wrath— Hey, let go of me!”

Ni-T’o had slowed his mount just enough to catch the old man under his arm and scoop him up onto Bella’s broad back face down in front of him, where the old fellow proceeded to kick like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Nate and Gonzalo slowed their charge, forming a guard as Ni-T’o galloped between them, taking his unwilling charge to safety. They would have laughed at the sight had the situation not been so dire. They were just about to engage the enemy themselves when the circle, fronted by the line of spears, made a brazen move, coming at the thing from this side as it passed. Several spears embedded in its side, and yet another hail of flaming arrows flew, some catching it in the side of its massive head. They were trying for the eyes, but they presented too small a target, and the thing moved alarmingly fast for something so large. The beast turned toward them, frothing with rage, only to be rewarded with another mouthful of arrows and a spear stuck painfully in its neck, just missing the windpipe.

The tribe was, as hard as it was to believe, beginning to gain the advantage. Instead of pressing its attack, the great beast was cowed by the unexpected agony. It had never encountered such creatures as these before, and their fiery sting was too much to bear. It moved out of arrow range, whining for all the world like a dog that had been kicked by a cruel master. Nate realized then, that for all its monstrous size and ferocity, it was still just an animal, doing what it had to do to survive. He almost felt sorry for it, and certainly might have had it not been trying to eat his friends. Their tactics had worked, they had injured it, but not mortally. The defeated monster lowered its head and roared at them angrily, then, with one last hateful glare, it broke into a run, making all haste to escape any further torment.

“This dragon doesn’t care for fire, it seems.” Gonzalo said, stroking his bushy black beard.

“Too bad it didn’t stick around, I’ve acquired a bit of a taste for barbecued dragon steaks.” Nate carefully unloaded his pistol, and secured it back in its holster, very glad that it had not been necessary to bring his few precious bullets into play.

After the creature left, all was silent for a moment, then a great whooping began. The more-than-half-crazy wise-man, now that he had been deposited on the ground by his savior Ni-T’o, was utterly unrepentant, and began banging on his drum again, yodeling at the top of his lungs like a madman. Everyone started to dance and whoop.

Nate shook his head and smiled at the impromptu wild rumpus. “Crazy injuns,” he said, but there was no malice in his tone, only respect, and a fondness that had been growing stronger every day he spent with the doughty tribesmen.

“I greatly admire their courage,” Gonzalo said, relieved to have the encounter finished without loss of life and limb.

“Yeah, that thing would make a whole unit of US Army grunts turn tail and run for the hills.”

“Even a troop of Spanish knights would lose their courage in the face of such a foe as that. We are fortunate men to have found allies such as these in this hellish place.”

Ni-T’o rode over to them, the usually stoic fellow was grinning like a fool. “We won!” he announced proudly in English.

“We did indeed,” Nate replied, grinning himself now. It had been a close thing, but they had beat the odds. He just hoped that luck would hold, they were far from out of the woods yet.

The three of them watched the impromptu festivities from astride their mounts, sharing a moment of pride in their accomplishment.

Nate nodded, a thoughtful look on his face. “We learned something important today: A group of armed men such as these are a match for a dragon. Maybe even more than a match. I’d say mankind’s chances of survival just went up a notch.”

 

The Mysterious Mesa

 

The mesa loomed before them, a massive shadow against the painfully bright sky, growing subtly larger with each step. A hush drew over the people, and they whispered and pointed at its sheer, straight walls, wondering how such an unnatural structure could have been created.

“This is a holy place. We are fortunate to find such as this in these demon-lands,” Ninak-Mkateewa announced, his wizened face taking on an uncharacteristically reverent demeanor. He began to chant softly, his eyes glistening with whatever fey emotions stirred a man such as he.

They reached the Tilted Meadow Camp late in the afternoon, tired, but excited. Upon arrival, the men and women set about making the place habitable for their large group. The men prepared to begin construction of a path up to the spot where they would build the rope bridge across the chasm that divided the slide from the mesa’s top, while the women set about feeding them all with the stores they had brought along.

Ni-T’o showed off the shovel he had crafted from the spikes of a fallen beast. Soon, he was joined by several other craftsmen, making the rest of the spikes into spades to use in the trail-breaking ahead. Once he had his compatriots on task, he came over to where Gonzalo and Nate were standing, both looking a bit lost as the hustle and bustle went on around them

“I have taught my people to make shovels from the great beast’s spine,” he told them. “They will be good tools, but . . .”

“Not as good as if you had made them yourself!” Gonzalo and Nate interrupted, both saying the exact same thing at the exact same time.

Ni-T’o laughed, and spread his hands, guilty as charged. “I have come to ask if you would like to climb the mesa with me now. I worry for my young cousin. Who knows what kind of trouble he has gotten himself into? The people will watch your horses, they know well what to do.”

Nate and Gonzalo both jumped at the offer. There wasn’t much they could do to help down here, and in any case they needed to have another look at the chasm to start planning the best way to lay the rope bridge.

“Last one to the top is a rotten egg!” Nate said with a grin, and started up the oddly canted slope. Ni-T’o looked confused, wondering if he had heard his friend correctly.

Gonzalo looked at Ni-T’o and shrugged. “Our friend from the future realm of Texas is full of such odd jests. I have no idea what he means myself most of the time. Anyway, we had best keep our eggs fresh.” He smiled, and began to climb himself.

Despite their head start, it didn’t take Ni-T’o, his wife Hvishi, and several other tribe members long to catch up. Much to Nate and Gonzalo’s disdain, the cantankerous wise-man was among them.

Gonzalo reached out to give the old fellow a hand, but the venerable Ninak-Mkateewa laughed at the offer of help, then proceeded to scramble up the slope as nimbly as a chipmunk, cackling all the way as if it were the greatest sport ever.

“He’s full of surprises,” Nate commented, admiring the ancient fellow’s spryness.

Ni-T’o said something in his own tongue that Nate couldn’t quite catch.

Gonzalo laughed, then explained to Nate. “I believe I have heard you use this phrase from your dialect of English, ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’ ”

Nate raised his eyebrows. The Spaniard had sounded just as if he’d come from the great nation of Texas himself. By now the old man had put a good bit of distance between them.

“Well,” Nate drawled, starting to climb again, “then we have so much to look forward to.”

The wise-man paused, now a good fifty yards above, to look down at them. He cackled mockingly, then his black-painted nearly bare form disappeared into the branches of the leaning trees.

“Maybe,” Gonzalo said in a dark tone as he resumed the climb, “we should have let the dragon eat him.”

“The thought did cross my mind.” Nate spit out a mouth-full of the dust the old man had stirred up during his scramble.

When they reached the log bridge, a welcome sight greeted them, T’cumu sitting proudly astride his mesa cayuse. Gonzalo and Nate were only a little surprised that their friend had succeeded in taming the savage little beast so quickly. He certainly did have a way with her. The young warrior waved, and shouted a cheery “Hello!” to them, followed by, “Are you hungry?”

“I could eat a horse! Let’s have supper,” Ninak-Mkateewa said in such perfectly clear English that it made Nate jump in surprise.

“I bet you could, and you know damn well you had better not or I’ll tan that thick hide of yours!” Nate scolded him, feeling a bit flustered at the man’s sudden fluency in his own language. “Where’d you learn how to say that, anyway?”

Ninak-Mkateewa laughed his crow-like cackle, then told him “I’ve been listening to everything you say since you came to us. It doesn’t take much to learn such a simple tongue as yours!” Enjoying Nate’s consternation immensely, the old man trotted off after T’cumu , making sure to be first in line for the chow.

Nate turned to Ni-T’o, whose bronzed face was the very picture of inscrutability. “Did you know he could do that?”

“Beats me,” the tribesman answered in his own perfectly Texan vernacular before following his cousin.

Nate stood there for a moment in a state of shock.

“An amazing people, aren’t they? Always full of surprises,” Gonzalo said, clapping him amicably on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. Your ability in their language has improved greatly. You’ll show our wicked heathen friend up at some point.”

“Yeah, I suppose. I liked the old bastard better when I didn’t know what the Hell he was yapping about. This is definitely a revolting development.”

“The first of many, no doubt! Come now, before he eats all the food.”

****

They spent the night at Mesa Top Camp, everyone but the young warrior assigned first watch nodding off to sleep soon after sunset, exhausted from the day’s adventures.

Early the next morning work began on the rope bridge that would make safe travel across the chasm possible, even for their horses. Gonzalo had actually used rope bridges during his travels in Africa, so they had a vague idea of how to go about it. First they made small models out of twine and twigs to test their ideas out on. It took a lot of trial and error, but they were making progress. Everyone able was busy making more rope. A few more people joined them at the camp on the mesa, but most stayed below at the Tilted Meadow Camp.

The actual construction began at the crack of dawn the next day. They decided to incorporate the fallen log as the bridge’s base, upon which they laid a five-foot-wide path of sturdy tree branches horizontally along its length, all woven together with rope, and tied firmly around the trunk. Nate and Gonzalo could barely stand to look as some of the men fearlessly hung from ropes beneath the log while they secured the wooden path. A number of men were assigned to stand guard, waiting beside lit torches with bows and arrows ready on both sides of the chasm, just in case the flying monsters that had almost knocked Nate from his perch returned. T’cumu had told them about the monster that had followed him up there from the lands below. Hopefully that wouldn’t happen again.

Another work crew was busy clearing a suitable trail up the jumbled terrain of the slide. The tribesmen proved quite adept at finding the paths of least resistance, and with some occasional advice from Nate and Gonzalo as to what would work best for a horse making the journey, they made quick progress, cutting tree limbs out of the way here, and digging level footing out of the slope there. The work was difficult, but no one complained. They knew they had found a refuge, as safe a place for their people as could be found in the New New World, and were eager to make it their own.

****

After spending the day hard at work, Ni-T’o went to find his new wife, Hvshi, which meant the “the Sun” in their language. She was his brother Fvni’s widow, and since Ni-T’o was single, it was their custom to be wed. They walked to the edge of the mesa and looked out upon the vast ocean to the west, where the bloated red Cretaceous sun edged slowly towards the horizon, casting all in a ruby light.

TS-TMM-8-hvsh“It is so beautiful!” Hvshi exclaimed, staring out at the panorama below. “So much water, I never could have imagined it!”

“There is much I have seen since coming to this world that I could not have imagined in our old lives. Our friends from the future told me that in our own time there were oceans such as these, although they were in different places than now. Our people just never saw them, our entire lives were spent within a few days walk from home!”

“Yes, and now much of what was in that walk is gone, replaced by these new, dangerous lands. Still, at least we have our village, and some other villages we know, here with us. We are surviving, making the best of things.”

Ni-T’o turned to her, a gentle, but sad smile on his face. “Are you happy, Hvishi?”

“Yes, I am. I have become used to our new lives here. But, sometimes I am sad, when I think on poor Fvni.”

Ni-T’o nodded solemnly. “Were you happy with him?”

“You know I was.” She looked at him with her warm brown eyes, now filled with concern. “And, I am happy now. I thank the gods I have you in my life, I don’t know what would have become of me if I had lost you, too!”

“I am glad to hear that, but . . . I am not my brother,” Ni-T’o said, looking down to the grass below their feet. Even though they had been fortunate, and there had been love in their union from the beginning, there were times when he still worried that Hvishi might still pine after her first love.

“No, you are not Fvni. You are Ni-T’o, and you are my husband now, and yes, you have my love, just as he had it.” She took his hand and held it in the soft warmth of her own.

“I am grateful for that, Hvishi. I count myself a lucky man, but at what cost? I would have gladly given my own life, died a thousand times if it could have saved my Fvni.”

“I know you would have. The gods desired otherwise. We will never forget Fvni, but we must live the life we have now. And so, are you happy with me?” she asked, her gaze penetrating him to the very soul.

“Yes, of course I am! I have loved you since we were children. If I had been older than Fvni you would have been mine! But I am not a jealous man, and I never, ever wished either of you ill. I loved both of you so much!”

“You are a good man, Ni-T’o, better than any other I know. I am proud to be your wife, and to have your love. Now, let’s make this place our home, and fill it with our children! There is so much to do, I just don’t know where to start!”

Ni-T’o gave her a sly smile. “Children you say? I think I have some idea of where to start.” He folded her gently into his arms and they both laughed, a musical sound that filled them both with joy. The sound flew with the wind far out onto the Western Ocean, where it mixed with the cries of the great flying beasts fishing for their dinner.

 

Two Weeks Later, The Bridge to the Mesa Top

 

TS-TMM-8-wldlfIt had taken a great deal of hard labor, but, at last, the trail and bridge were complete. A few young warriors remained below at the Tilted Meadow as watchmen, while the rest of the people moved to the Mesa’s verdant top, crossing the bridge carefully one by one, until all stood in the wildflower dotted meadows, blinking at the surrounding beauty in near disbelief. There were many exclamations of delight as their gazes moved to the green fields and hills beyond, the familiar trees full of songbirds. They felt almost as if they had found their way home to their own time. So it was until they beheld some of the many unusual animals that inhabited their new home, some similar to those that they knew, but much larger, others truly bizarre to behold.

They marveled at a creature that resembled a beaver grown to a towering height, three times larger than a grizzly bear! It watched them from a nearby grove of trees as it chomped contentedly on tender leaves in the high branches. The beast seemed docile enough, and made no move toward them, but they gave it a wide berth anyway. Strange, yes, but at least it was a mammal, and not one of the terrible lizards that haunted the rest of the New New World, which was something to be glad of. It was a good land, far better than any they had seen since coming to this unfathomably ancient time, and they would make it their own.

Once the tribe had passed, it was time to bring up the horses. The trail was a bit steep, but navigable. When they reached the crossing, Nate, Ni-T’o and Gonzalo placed blinders on their mounts to keep them calm. The bridge had evolved into a tunnel, it had walls woven from rope, and a roof of branches, just high enough to let the riderless horses pass. The additions created peace of mind and safety for anyone crossing, as well as protecting against the great flying beasts that occasionally soared through the chasm.

“Well, I might as well go first,” Nate said, working hard to inject a note of confidence into his voice. It didn’t matter if it was a covered bridge now, or not. He knew that damn log still lay beneath it, and even now crossing it set his heart a-flutter. With some gentle coaxing, he led Poppy up the slope, emerging onto the grassy meadow with a sigh of relief. Gonzalo followed with Flavio, then Ni-T’o with Bella. Now that T’cumu had a horse of his own, Bella had officially become Ni-T’o’s pride and joy. He doted on the beautiful, black Spanish mare, treating her to corn cakes filled with fruit from the mesa until she had begun to grow a bit round.

Of course, there was a bit more to that plumpness than good food. Both Bella and Poppy were carrying the foals that Flavio had planted in them. The blessed event was still long months away, but all the men looked forward to it, and were greatly relieved that the births would take place in the relative safety of the mesa top.

A short ride later they arrived at Mesa Top camp, which had grown into a temporary small village while work began on more permanent homes on the range of hills a few miles farther on.

T’cumu waited in the corral with Oklilinchi, a look of fatherly concern on his face. Would the new arrivals accept the ‘mesa cayuse’ into their herd? Would the stubborn little mare want to join? The moment of truth had arrived.

“Nate, Gonzalo, is there anything I must do?” he asked in a worried tone.

Gonzalo took him by the arm, comforting him in an elder-brotherly way. “No, my friend, and do not be so nervous. Horses are meant to live together in herds. They will sort things out for themselves.”

“I’m still not sure that candy-striped little cuss is a horse. I figure it’s some kind of tiger with hooves,” Nate opined loudly. The bruises he had suffered from her foul-tempered attentions had only recently healed.

T’cumu gave him a withering glance that could have melted glass, and Gonzalo fixed him with a stern gaze that plainly said “You are not helping!”

“Okay, fine. You better let Flavio in with her first, if anyone can melt her icy heart, it’s that randy fellow.”

Gonzalo strode proudly over to his waiting stallion, and led him into the corral, both their heads held high in the proud way of the Spaniard. He took off his halter, and petted him gently on the face. “Go now, my friend, win her heart!” he whispered, then sent him off with a gentle nudge in the young mare’s direction.

Flavio went straight to work, prancing over to the shy young thing with his tail held high, sniffing and snorting the horse’s version of a love song. Within a minute they were nuzzling like a pair of doves, the cayuse utterly smitten by her golden suitor.

Gonzalo rejoined his friends, fairly bursting with pride. “You see! It didn’t take my beautiful boy long at all.”

“Yes, Flavio certainly has a way with women,” Nate agreed, watching the always-eager stallion romance the moon-struck Oklilinchi.

“Unlike his master, alas!” Gonzalo said, laughing and shaking his head ruefully. “It seems we will be adding three foals to our herd now.”

“Well, I was hoping Flavio would take a shine to the little cuss just for that reason. Now we can find out if we’re going to get horses or mules out of such a union. Mules would not be a bad thing, by any means, but I’m holding out hope that these here cayuses actually are horses, even though they’d surely be the oddest-looking ones I’ve ever seen.”

“Then you have not seen a zebra, which these creatures remind me of. The stripes are not as pronounced, but the bushy mane, and the round ears, these are very similar. I could scarcely have believed such a breed, a horse native to the Americas, had ever even existed, if I had not seen it with my own eyes. Let us hope they can, indeed, produce offspring!”

“If it all works out, we will be the proud godfathers of a new breed. My old Grand-Dad would have sure been tickled at a chance like this. Too bad I never got to show him my pretty little appaloosa. He was always keen for something new to add to his stock. At some point I’ll mate Poppy with a cayuse stallion and see what we get. It would be one tough critter, I’ll wager.”

“I wonder if it would have stripes, or spots?” Gonzalo mused.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Either or both is fine with me. The real question will be if it’s fertile or not. The suspense is damn near gonna kill me.”

“Not if a dragon does first,” Gonzalo said, then turned pale. “Oh, Nate, I do apologize! What an awful thing to say, I am sorry if I offended you! I shouldn’t tempt the fates in such a way!” Gonzalo crossed himself, then did it again for good measure.

Nate just laughed. “It’s all right, Gonzalo. I happen to be a long-time aficionado of gallows humor. Besides, you’d have to get up pretty early in the morning and walk a few hundred miles to offend a dusty old cowboy like me. Well, let’s let the rest of the girls in, before they get too jealous.”

A few minutes later Flavio was cantering around the corral followed by his three lady admirers. The horse’s masters, all greatly pleased, adjourned for a much-needed rest beneath the shady trees. Life was good today, and all four of them prayed silently in their own way that it would last.

 

Three Months Later, Cayuse Cabin

 

Nate sat on the wide front porch of the log cabin he and his friends had built near the site of the Mesa Top Camp. It was placed beneath the shady trees, looking out across the grassy fields the wild ‘cayuse’ horses favored for grazing. One day soon the place would grow into a real ranch, his very own. He hadn’t realized that was his secret desire in all his years of wandering, not until he arrived in the strange world of the distant past—an odd place to discover one’s future, to say the least. Gonzalo was staying with him, while they constructed a mud-brick house in the old Spanish style a half-mile away, in a spot just as lovely as this one.

Work on the village they had dubbed Hilltop was mostly finished, hard-packed dirt streets lined with the quaint, clay-daubed half-timbered dwellings the tribesmen favored. Hilltop housed the families and young women, all living in comfort, surrounded by the mesa’s abundant beauty. Another, smaller village, more of a fort really, had been erected near the rope bridge. This had come to be known as “Lookout,” and was the favored haunt of the tribe’s young bachelors, who were charged with the important task of standing guard at the bridge.

Word of the mesa had spread among the peoples the twentieth-century folk called Pre-Mounds Tribes, and the mesa’s population had already began to grow as more and more of them made the journey across the Drained Sea, gladly leaving behind scattered small villages and camps that had proven too difficult to defend against the monstrous creatures roaming the lands below. All were welcomed, and now the people of many tribes were coalescing into a new identity, calling themselves The Mesa People. Nate and Gonzalo were proud to count themselves among their number, and had been elevated to the status of great chiefs by their adopted kinsmen. Even irascible old Ninak-Mkateewa had come to treat them with some respect, most of the time, anyway.

Nate sat in the oak rocking chair he had carved for himself, and mused on his good fortune. After a blissful spell, he stood up, stretching his long legs with a groan. The one that he had been snared by still gave him a bit of trouble, but it wasn’t as bad, and he thought one day it might completely heal. Now it was time to go check on the small herd of wild cayuses they had corralled, and placed under the talented care of T’cumu, who they figured could tame a tornado if given the chance. Before he could get very far, he heard the drum-beat of handsome Flavio’s hooves coming across the meadow at a gallop. Apparently Gonzalo was in a bit of a hurry.

“What’s going on?” Nate called to him, feeling a bit concerned at his friend’s unexpected arrival.

Gonzalo waved, and called back. “You have a visitor asking for you at the bridge!”

“Huh? A visitor? Who?” For the life of him, Nate couldn’t think of anybody in the New New World who would be coming to see him, for any good reason anyway.

“I think you had better come see for yourself.” Gonzalo was obviously excited, and trying to control himself.

“I can tell by the look on your face that it’s going to be someone interesting, and not necessarily in a good way.”

“Just come, come and see!”

Nate rounded up Poppy, and they rode the few easy miles to the bridge at a ground-eating trot. Poppy was beginning to show, and Nate didn’t like to run her too hard. They arrived at Lookout to find a crowd had gathered. As they drew closer, Nate saw some amongst them wearing a certain cut of clothing—the kind worn by the people of the City of the Pyramids.

It wasn’t that big a surprise. He knew that at some point city folk would arrive here, and he was glad that they had their defenses set up well before such an occasion. He and Gonzalo dismounted and walked forward, the crowd parting for them.

Suddenly, Nate came to an abrupt halt.

There, at the center of the gathering, surrounded by her ever-watchful personal guard, was the Raven Priestess. As always, she was utterly captivating, dressed all in indigo, her long, raven tresses framing the other-worldly beauty of her face. She favored Nate with a mysterious smile, her smoky-amber eyes glittering bronze as they caught the blaze of the midday sun. She was a thing of the night, and even beneath the light of day she was somehow surrounded by a shimmering darkness, a shadow sojourning long past the dawn.

Gonzalo took Nate, who was frozen in place, gently by the arm, and began guiding him forward. He spoke softly in his ear. “So, as you said, ‘interesting’, no?”

“Yup, sure enough,” Nate managed to croak through a throat gone tight. He was having a hard time catching his breath; the woman always had the damnedest effect on him! He shook himself, and squared his shoulders in an attempt to ward off her stunning power over him. “Yeah, interesting, and also like I said, ‘not necessarily in a good way.’ I wonder if she even remembers me. . . . Hey, what the—”

Suddenly, like an owl swooping from its perch to fall upon its hapless prey, the Raven Priestess rushed to Nate, and enclosed him in an inescapable embrace, her lips stopping his words with a passionate kiss.

Nate’s hands flapped about helplessly for a moment, like birds that had forgotten how to fly, until they came to land gently on her back. With a visible shrug he stopped resisting, and set about returning her affection in earnest. I will regret this later, I know I will, and damned if I care! were his last thoughts as he let himself fall under her inexorable, sensuous spell.

Everyone gathered fell into a surprised silence at the unexpected event, except for Gonzalo, who began laughing loudly, quite unable to stop himself.

****

To be continued in The 1st Cavalry of the Cretaceous

Time Spike: The Mysterious Mesa, Part Seven: Exodus

TS-TMM-P7-Exodus-banner

Tilted Meadow Camp

 

Ni-T’o watched Nate and Gonzalo as they made their way down the canted terrain of the slide. He was glad to see them, but was worried for his cousin, T’cumu, who was clearly not present. He checked the horses, then began to climb rapidly, pulling himself higher with the aid of the leaning trees and bushes. A few minutes later he was in shouting distance.

“Hello! What of T’cumu?” He used Spanish, the language the three of them shared the most proficiency in.

“He is fine!” Gonzalo called back. “He stayed up on the mesa.”

“Find us some lunch and we’ll tell you all about it!” Nate added.

Glad to hear that T’cumu was all right, Ni-T’o nodded, and headed back down to set about feeding the hungry travelers returned.

****

A little while later Nate and Gonzalo were gnawing happily on barbecued steaks from the large beast that Ni-T’o had harvested for meat, hide and bone. The pale, pink meat was a bit gamy perhaps, not really tasting like any flesh they had ever dined on before, but it was hot, dripping with fat, and it filled the holes in their bellies nicely. The tribesmen used everything nature provided in some way or another, and were surviving quite nicely in this unfathomably ancient world they found themselves in. Not for the first time, Nate wondered if his former comrades in the US Army, the Cherokee they had been escorting, and the Schullerville people from the twentieth century were faring half so well. Ni-T’o showed them the spade he had made, demonstrating just one of the many uses he was discovering for bones fifty times larger than even the biggest moose, or bison’s. They applauded as he dug a hole in the tilted meadow’s dark soil, just as easily as if the tool had been made of iron. Not for the first time, his friends from future eras wondered if things like iron could be had here. Bone was certainly useful, but both men wished fervently for good, hard metal.

Ni-T’o listened with great interest as his friends related their adventures on the mesa top. When they were done, he excused himself for a moment to water the horses, filling the skins from one of the many trickles of freshwater emanating from the mesa’s smooth, almost perfectly straight walls. They had told him of their idea that people from his currently very overcrowded village should come and found a new village here. He hadn’t seen all that the mesa had to offer with his own eyes, but the fact that the plan held T’cumu’s approval went far to alleviate any trepidation he might feel. And so, it was decided. He would do as T’cumu asked, and make the recommendation to the elders.

“A new village, on the mesa. It would be good,” he told his friends upon returning. “When do we go?”

“How about now? There’s no time like the present,” Nate replied, standing up. “Thanks for lunch, that was good grub.”

“Indeed, thank you, Ni-T’o,” Gonzalo said, rubbing the grease from his hands on to the meadow grass. “Now that we know not to become lost in the dry coral reefs, and with only one man astride Bella, we can run the horses a bit harder, and make it by evening.”

It only took a few minutes to break their simple camp. Nate watched Ni-T’o lean his spade against a tree, knowing they would be back again, and have need of it here.

“We could use a few more of those,” Nate told Ni-T’o, thinking of the trail they would have to cut into the steeply leaning terrain of the slide.

“I will make them. I like to make things.”

“So do I. T’cumu taught us how to make rope while we were up there. We’ll need to bring a lot more with us when we come back.”

Ni-T’o laughed. “I will show you how to make good rope. Better than T’cumu’s.”

Nate laughed, too, the friendly rivalry between the cousins had become a bona fide tradition in their little group.

****

TS-TMM-P7-drndThe trip back across the sandy wastes of the Drained Sea was uneventful. The river where they had been attacked by the strange little squid creatures had widened and grown more shallow, with no unpleasant denizens to be found. They arrived at the village at dusk, to another warm welcome. Ni-T’o’s wife, Hvshi, pushed her way to the front of the gathered crowd, a worried look on her face.

“T’cumu?” she asked her new husband in fearful tones, as she took his hands in hers. She had lost far too many friends and relatives since coming to this frightful place, including her late husband, Ni-T’o’s brother Fvni, a victim of the cruel Rattlesnake Priests in the City of the Pyramids, a people who were, strangely, their own descendants from a future time.

Ni-T’o enclosed her in his strong, but gentle embrace. He spoke softly to her, knowing she had suffered much. “T’cumu stayed on the mesa. Don’t worry so, he is safe!”

 

The Mesa Top

 

T’cumu and the demon glared at each other, sharing a hatred that went deeper than mere emotion, an instinctual urge from deep within the brain that told each of them the same thing: This is the enemy. The enemy must die!

T’cumu was in a low crouch, waiting for his foe to make the first move. He would fend off whatever attack it launched, then counter with one of his own. The creature hissed, a long, low breath of sheer menace meant to intimidate, but T’cumu held his ground, unfazed. The last time T’cumu had fought this demon it had led with the razor-sharp, sickle-shaped claw rising from the top of its foot. That hadn’t worked very well for it, and now T’cumu held that very same claw, ready to use it against its former owner.

“So, you have followed me all the way here, seeking your lost claw, perhaps, eh, demon? It is here, and you shall know its sharpness for yourself.” T’cumu’s voice held no fear. Even so, he didn’t think the creature would make the same mistakes it had made last time, it was far too clever for that. He would probably die this day, but he would take this foul thing into the world beyond with him.

The beast moved its head back and forth, swaying on its serpentine neck as it sized up its opponent. Suddenly, it leaped forward, leading with its jaws full of vicious, serrated teeth instead of with its remaining claw. T’cumu dodged, but just barely. The thing was fast, and far more agile than any man or beast he had ever encountered. The teeth raked his right bicep, leaving a bloody track.

Despite the burst of pain, T’cumu was able to bring the claw knife down in a swift arc that cut deeply into the demon’s thigh. Blood welled up, a bright crimson, and flowed quickly. He had been lucky with his strike, and hoped that luck would last. The creature shrieked with rage, landing clumsily in the surrounding thicket. It was losing blood, but so was T’cumu. The brave young warrior decided what his next move would be in a split second—run! There was no cowardice in it. He faced the deadliest of foes, and must take whatever chance at an advantage he could find, no matter how slim. He had planned an escape route just in case, a path through the underbrush that he could navigate quickly, but might impede the progress of anything larger than him. While the demon thrashed angrily through the brambles behind him, losing blood all the while, T’cumu hit the clearing, planning to run for the nearest tree, from which, perhaps temporary, safety he could attack with his bow and arrows. Could the thing climb? Very likely it could. Before he could continue, he paused at an unexpected sight; much to his surprise, someone was waiting for him just outside the thicket, his new friend, the young, still half-wild mare, Oklilinchi.

Apparently, the affectionate animal had followed him even though he had set her free, perhaps hoping for more treats from her doting human. T’cumu smiled grimly, and made a rash decision. He knew the odd little horse wasn’t saddle trained, and might buck him off for his troubles, but he would take the chance. He shoved his weapons back into their slings on his leather belt. He would need both hands for what he planned. Calling her name, he ran toward her, then hurtled onto her wide back. She was startled by this, and wheeled around, more in surprise at the sudden weight than in dismay. Just then, the demon burst from the brush, hissing like a bag-full of vipers. Instinct kicked in, and Oklilinchi bolted, with T’cumu hanging onto her shaggy mane for dear life.

They crossed the meadow in a flash, Oklilinchi galloping as if a devil from the darkest hells were behind her, and there was. The snarling, spitting beast was fast on its feet, but now both its legs were injured, one still sore from hanging in the snare, the other from T’cumu’s attack. Oklilinchi showed no signs of slowing, and T’cumu felt fairly confident he could remain astride her using only the powerful muscles of his legs. He sat up straight, found his balance, then turned his head back to see the demon close behind and gaining ground, its pursuit fueled by sheer wrath. T’cumu’s dark eyes narrowed as he reached for the bow and quiver strapped to his bronze-skinned back. With the practiced ease of an expert bowman, he notched an arrow, turned at the waist, accounted for the rhythm of his mount’s gallop, found his mark, pulled back the string, and let the arrow fly. His aim was true, the missile embedded itself in his foe’s belly, and would have gone deeper had it not struck a rib. The creature shrieked again, clutching at the foreign object with its agile arms, but not slowing. T’cumu drew another arrow and shot again, this time sending it deep into a lung, with only the feathered end of the shaft still protruding from the brightly-striped, red-and green-hide. The creature ceased running, wheezed in agony, stumbled, then dropped to the ground.

T’cumu knew the demon was mortally wounded. He slipped off panicked Oklilinchi’s back, and landed running, keeping his feet with the agility of the bobcat he had been named for. The horse kept going, not bothering to look back, and he whispered a brief thanks to her for her unwitting, but crucial help. He then walked warily back toward the fallen creature, claw-knife and ax back in his able hands. He could hear from its rough, gurgling breaths that its lungs were filling up with blood. The fallen demon turned its serpent-like head toward him, meeting his gaze with its startling light-green eyes. He had thought he would feel elation at besting the monstrous thing, but now as it lay dying he only felt the same pity he did for any animal he killed, either for food or in self-defense. He went to its side and knelt there. The beast made no move to attack, lost in the agony of its dying breaths.

“I told you I would kill you with your own claw, and so I shall, but not in anger. You were a worthy opponent. The tale of our battles will be heard by my children’s children, and their children’s children. Go into the next world with my respect. Now, here is my mercy.” With a swift, sure motion he thrust the claw-knife into an eye, then twisted it sharply. The remaining eye stared up at the empty sky for a moment, went dim, and rolled up into its socket. T’cumu spoke the reverent prayer to the gods he always did after a kill, then began the process of skinning the carcass. The meat was no good, but the tough, pebbled hide would make a good pair of moccasins. Once he had processed everything possibly useful, he detached its remaining dagger-claw. He held the two claws before him, one in each hand, and smiled. A matching set.

 

Stone Wall Village

 

Once the horses were cared for, the travelers were ushered into the chief’s lodge for dinner and to give an account of their adventure. Ni-T’o did most of the talking, with occasional additions from the rest. The elders of the three allied tribes listened thoughtfully, soaking in the amazing tale, only rarely stopping the narrative to ask questions.

Finally, Ni-T’o saw it was time to tell them the idea his friends had come up with during their exploration.

“And so, honored elders, we have found a place of shelter and bounty. There are dangers there, like the great pumas we saw, but they are the kind of dangers we are used to. The mesa is not from the same time as our origins, and some of the animals found there had mostly died out before our ancestors came to the land of our birth, but they are still animals such as we know, unlike the strange and terrible beasts that wander this ancient world. Most of the plants and trees are those that are familiar to us. The land on the mesa isn’t quite the same as our former home, but close enough that we can be comfortable there. It is a great opportunity for us. And so, our suggestion to relieve the overcrowding here, is to found a new village atop the mesa.”

The elders broke their silence, all of them talking at once. After a while, the chief of their long-time allies, the River Fork People, came slowly to his feet, a slight smile on his lined and weathered face.

“My people lost our home, and have been the guests here in Stone Wall Village for far too long. It is, as you say, much too crowded, and even though we are kin, the smiles have grown thin. What you say has merit.”

The chief of their former enemies, the Standing Pines People, also rose.

“If it is decided, we will send warriors to escort you there, and perhaps some of our young folk will want to join you in founding this new village. It would be a good way for our three tribes to grow closer.” He turned to Stone Wall Village’s wise-man, an elderly, yet still intimidating figure, much revered by all of the allied tribes.

“What say you, Wise-man? You have been silent throughout these proceedings.”

The Wise-man remained seated, puffing contentedly on his pipe while they waited for his answer. The smoke reminded Gonzalo of the incense sometimes burned at church, but more acrid. Only God knew what might be in that bowl. It made the Spaniard, who had the misfortune of sitting near the wise-man, a bit dizzy whenever he got a good whiff of it. They had recently learned the wise-man had a name, Ninak-Mkateewa, “Dark of Night,” which went a long way to explain the pitch-black body paint that always covered him from head to toe. The old, no, ancient, fellow blew out a lungful of the heady smoke, deliberately aiming it at Gonzalo, who coughed and desperately waved his hands around to clear the air, which seemed to please the wizened reprobate. Gonzalo, although respectful of the wise-man’s age and position, was convinced that his soul was as black as his namesake, and upon leaving this world he would be bound straight for the fiery furnace.

“The wise squirrel,” Ninak-Mkateewa croaked in a voice that might have belonged to a crow, “stores its nuts in many trees.”

The surrounding elders nodded thoughtfully, while Gonzalo rolled his eyes heavenward, thinking that it didn’t take a wise-man to figure that one out.

At last, the chief of the Stone Wall People rose, and spread his hands, with a resigned smile. “It seems the matter is decided already. A new village in a place of safety would benefit all of us. Also, there are rumors that the City of the Great Mounds has been sending warriors out to villages like ours, asking tribute. It is said some people have been brought there against their will to work in the fields. It would be good for us to have a place of refuge if we ever must withdraw from this place. The city folk are strong, and their warriors are many.”

Nate perked up at the mention of the city folk, and urgently whispered to his friends, asking for a translation. Upon hearing what the chief had to say, he also came to his feet. “Ni-T’o, please ask the elders if I may speak.”

Ni-T’o did as his friend asked, and the elders readily agreed. Ni-T’o and Gonzalo would translate for him.

“Elders, there is another advantage to founding a village on the mesa that you have not yet heard. You have seen the horses that we ride, and I’m sure that those as wise as yourselves can see their worth. They are fast, faster than a man on foot, and do not tire as easily. They can outrun most of the great beasts we have seen so far. In combat, a man on horseback is much taller than a foe on foot, able to strike from above, and can even shoot arrows while riding.” Nate knew the latter for a fact, having been the target of such on several occasions.

He paused to let his words sink in, The elders were nodding favorably, so he continued. “On the mesa we discovered a herd of wild horses, a great boon. They can be captured, and trained. We can teach your people to ride them, and how to fight from their backs. Think of the edge that would give your tribes over the city folk! Instead of them bullying you for tribute, they would fear the might of your mounted warriors. And if they didn’t, they would soon learn to, as your cavalry crushes them beneath their hooves.” Nate had grown a bit excited, having slammed his fist into his palm along with his fervent message. He didn’t want to appear too eager. He smiled then, opening his hands in a hopeful gesture. “Give us your men and we will give you the greatest warriors this New, New World will ever see. Thank you for hearing my words.” He gave them a small bow, then stepped back. Ni-T’o placed his hand on Nate’s shoulder to show his support for his friend’s ideas.

The elders muttered amongst themselves in what sounded like agreeable tones, while the wise-man favored them with a most unrepentant, and wicked grin. “A wonderful idea, men riding atop these horses into battle! And, if that doesn’t work out, they will make a delicious meal!” he told them with such relish it made Nate and Gonzalo cringe, and consider sleeping in their precious horse’s paddock that night, just to be sure the old rascal wouldn’t try anything.

The meeting came to a close, more pipes were lit and passed around, which the men from the future took an obligatory puff from, even though the smoke was fairly disagreeable. Even so, Nate was pretty sure he could taste some tobacco in the mix, and thought he might be able to get used to the stuff, perhaps even come to enjoy it. Creature comforts were, after all, in short supply, although there was no shortage of creatures.

Outside the lodge, and relieved to be back in the fresh air, Gonzalo asked Ni-T’o “What do you think? Do they like the idea?”

Ni-T’o smiled. “Yes, I think they do. A new village on the mesa will be good for our people. They will agree.”

“That’s good. I’m figuring on living there myself, whatever happens. It’s the closest thing to Texas I’m going to get, I reckon.”

“And the same for me!” Gonzalo said eagerly, “A respite from scaled devils! Truly a land of milk and honey.”

****

Later that evening they were all sitting with their backs against the outer wall near the gate, watching the brave souls out working the fields. Nate was glad to see that some of the crops he had brought from the City of the Pyramids were coming up nicely. The tribesmen had always done some gardening, and were taking to farming with the knack they seemed to have for nearly every new thing. He thought of how nice it would be to grow a garden up on the mesa, enjoying its bounty while looking out across a ranch full of horses, even if most of them were a bit stout, and funny-looking. After a while, he rubbed his chin and decided it was time to bring up a question that had been troubling him ever since they had hatched their new plan.

“Well, fellas, has anyone given any thought to just how we are going to walk a village worth of people all the way to the Mesa?” Nate asked Gonzalo and Ni-T’o. “I’ve done something similar with the Cherokee, but we didn’t have to worry about giant lizards coming around to eat us up.”

Gonzalo nodded solemnly, bushy black brows furrowed with concern. “Indeed. The dangers of our former times cannot compare to what we face here. However, I have indeed been thinking on this, and have an idea. Nate, are you familiar with the military pikeman?”

“Sure, I used to love reading history, and yeah, I think I can see where you are going with that!” Nate replied, his imagination stirred by the idea.

Gonzalo smiled, rather pleased that knowledge from his older world might still impress a man hailing from hundreds of years later. “By your time the practice was long gone, but I have seen it in action. A line of men with pikes can stop a cavalry charge. I would wager they could do the same against one of those monsters, or at least slow it down.”

“Meanwhile, the archers shoot from behind. Yes, you really have something there Gonzalo! This could work!”

They then took a few minutes to explain it to Ni-T’o, who grasped the concept quickly. “Long spears. We can make them from the big trees.” He pointed at the native forest of gigantic conifers towering along the edge of the meadows that had come through the cataclysm with their village. “I can make very strong spears, and sharp.”

“Yes, and I’m sure they will be much better than any T’cumu could make,” Nate said, a wry grin on his face while Gonzalo’s bushy eyebrows raised, wondering what their tribesman friend’s reaction would be to Nate’s jest.

It took Ni-T’o a moment to grasp that Nate was kidding around with him, but when he got it, he laughed heartily. “Yes, T’cumu is good, but I am better.” He paused then, a thoughtful look on his face. “I have an idea, too.” he told them, switching to Spanish, which he was currently more fluent in than English, a matter that he would undoubtedly remedy soon. “We use fire. All animals fear fire, big and small.”

Gonzalo and Nate both nodded enthusiastically. Nate scratched his chin, a new thought forming. “I’ll add something to that very good idea; flame arrows!” The usually stoic and dry-witted Texan exclaimed like a school-boy reveling at the county fair, showing a cheerful, excited side of himself he rarely revealed.

Gonzalo clapped his hands in approval. “Perfect! That should make any fell beast think twice about bothering us!”

“The pitch from those big pines burns like a son-of-a-bitch. We still have some daylight, what say we go test this out?”

A few minutes later, the three of them rode out to the forest’s edge, pleased with their plans. By the next morning they had a working model for the pike made, as well as an arrow that burned brightly all the way to its target, and a while after. It was time to share their plan with the rest of the village. They would get as many able craftsmen as they could going on production, after which they would need a few days to train.

****

“It looks like we are going to make this happen, after all.” Nate said with more than a bit of pride, watching the villagers run through drills with their new weapons, a fifteen-foot-tall target made of poles and bundled grass playing the part of the dragon. Everyone who planned to go on the journey, around two-hundred souls from the three allied tribes, were now out practicing, women, children and the elderly included, each with their own duty in the event of an attack. The proceedings were going like clockwork, everyone involved worked smoothly together with only a few small missteps now and then. The chances of them surviving the move had increased dramatically.

“We still face great danger out there, but I feel much better about our chances now,” Gonzalo said, beaming happily at the proceedings.

He had been concerned as to whether they could organize these people in such a way, but had not been disappointed. They were a clever folk, and took quickly to new ideas, adapting to the New, New World much better than his own people had, who had stupidly continued their evil ways until they had gotten themselves nearly wiped out. He forced the bad memories of de Soto and his thugs from his mind. Those days were long gone, a million years away. He took some comfort in the thought that perhaps by helping these bright, hopeful people from long before the beginning of written history, the Lord might consider forgiving him some of his many sins. He felt strongly that the old Gonzalo had been left behind in the far future, and that he was a new man, born fresh into a challenging new existence. He intended fully to make the best of it, and hoped that it would bring out the best in him. He whispered a brief prayer that such would be the case, and smiled. The torments that had plagued his soul for so long were beginning to melt away under the celestial fire of the young, Cretaceous sun.

****

The morning of their journey arrived. All who were going gathered in the meadows below the village, all who were staying turned out to say their farewells. Nate grinned quietly throughout the process while Gonzalo chatted with various members of their party, spreading encouragement and good cheer.

“You are a veritable Moses, Gonzalo,” Nate told him in his usual wry tones, “leading your people to the promised land across a Drained Sea.”

This made Gonzalo laugh aloud, a boisterous, gleeful laugh that made everyone around him smile, even though they hadn’t understood a word Nate had said.

“Well, let’s hope we find a more lasting peace at the end of the journey than the Israelites did.”

“Amen to that.” A sour look came to Nate’s face. “Oh mercy, don’t tell me!”

Gonzalo looked to where Nate pointed with his stubbled chin. The village wise-man had joined the crowd, accompanied by several youngsters carrying what appeared to be various witch-doctor paraphernalia; wands, masks, rattles and drums, along with leather bags filled with God knew what.

“Ni-T’o?” Nate called his friend over, a question in his voice. “Is what I think is happening, really happening?”

Ni-T’o saw what had his friends troubled, and covered a smirk with the palm of his hand. He nodded, and replied “Yes, I am afraid it is so. Ninak-Mkateewa, the great wise-man, will accompany us on our journey. He very much wants to see the mesa with his own eyes.”

“And once he’s seen the mesa, he’ll go back to the village here, right?” Nate asked plaintively.

Ni-T’o just smiled, shrugged, and slipped back into the crowd.

“Let’s go!” the old wise-man shouted impatiently, shaking his gourd rattle. “I’m not getting any younger!”

Nate and Gonzalo both rolled their eyes up to the heavens imploringly.

“The Lord sends us tests,” Gonzalo stated matter-of-factly, resigned to their fate.

“I’m going to send my boot to that geezer’s scrawny bare-ass before too long. Come on Poppy, gid’up!”

 

The Drained Sea

 

Nate rode at the head of the column, his sharp eyes focused for danger. Their path had been clear so far, and they had now come to the wide, sandy flats of the Drained Sea. They had been making fairly good time until reaching the exposed seabed. Unable to stop themselves from giving into an urge seemingly shared by all of humanity, the people paused frequently to pick up the fantastically-shaped, exotic shells the strange event had left behind, slipping them into pouches and leather bags with crows of delight. Nate knew the shells were actually more than colorful gewgaws to the tribesmen, having formerly lived far from the ocean, seashells held a value born of rarity. They had been eagerly bartered and traded up and down the rivers, in many ways playing the role of coin of the realm. All the collecting was starting to slow down their progress enough that Nate asked Gonzalo to speak to the wise-man, who was ostensibly the highest ranking individual present. The venerable, and undoubtedly mad as a march hare Ninak-Mkateewa had ended up seated behind the long-suffering Spaniard on Flavio’s sturdy back, puffing away on his pipe with all the pompous pride of place of a maharajah borne along on a bejeweled palanquin, to the tune of Gonzalo’s frequent coughs. The wise-man nodded congenially at the request, then shouted something in their language that Nate couldn’t quite catch, but was sure did not sound gentle in any way. The people got the message, and sheepishly picked up the pace, eyeing the precious shells they passed by with the regret of avarice unfulfilled.

A little while later, Nate couldn’t help but let out a joyous whoop.

“Lookie there, what do you see?” he asked Gonzalo.

“I see . . .” Gonzalo was a bit near-sighted, and squinted beneath the glare of the ever-too-bright sun. “I see . . . I see green! It’s grass!”

“It sure as tarnation is! Them seeds we saw the wind carry off the mesa, some of them landed here, and the rains did the rest! I thought it might be too salty, but this old weed will grow in damn near anything. Some day this will all be a grass-covered plain like the ones back home! We can bring those big buffalo down here, and let them roam! We’ll make this a world more to our liking.” Just then, Nate remembered the hand-full of grass seeds he had put in his pocket just before they had left Stone Wall Village the first time. He rode out to the side of the column where no one would tread on them, and scattered them about. “Just call me Johnny Appleseed!” he proclaimed.

“Who is Johnny Appleseed?” Gonzalo asked.

“I’ll tell you later.”

“Does he bear any relation to the cat? You still haven’t told me what happened to the cat!”

Nate just grinned, and rode on, while Gonzalo shook his head at his friend’s occasionally cryptic references from a time over a hundred years passed by from the one he himself had been born to. For a moment, Gonzalo wondered if that world would yet come to be, and then, much to his surprise, he hoped that it wouldn’t, for if it did, it meant that all they were setting about to do on this day would be for naught, that all their works would vanish into the dark abyss of prehistory. He had no way of knowing, of course, but decided that their old worlds and times had probably gone on without them, and that this was in fact a New, New World, a chance at building a different future granted them by a Lord who did indeed move in mysterious ways.

TS-TMM-P7-txsAlthough he maintained a vigilant state, after a while Nate’s mind wandered as they made their slow and steady way toward the promised land of the Mysterious Mesa. Not that long ago, if you didn’t count a few million years, he had been a cavalry scout for the US Army. Raised a horseman, and wanting to escape the future his father had laid out for him, he joined up, glad to be a few hundred miles away from the stuffy Boston school he had been sent to. The thought made him melancholy, his father back in the Republic of Texas would have received a letter from his former employees by now, explaining that his son was missing and presumed dead, and no, they really didn’t know what the hell had happened to him, the soldiers with him, nor the displaced Cherokees they had been escorting. The latter, Nate was sadly sure, the government of the land hungry US of A would simply consider good riddance, amen and thank you. Nate hadn’t always gotten on too well with his father, but he hated to think of the look on his face when he opened that letter, followed by the tears his mother would surely have cried. Or, would cry, some day. Traveling through time was a bothersome affair. The English language, versatile and robust bastard tongue that it was, wasn’t really equipped for that sort of thing.

He shook his head to clear away the gloomy shadows of things that were and would never be, there was nothing to be done for it. He was here, and here he would stay, so he was making the best of it. He had been lucky, he supposed, having fallen in with men who, despite coming from very different times and cultures, had proven to be stalwart friends. He turned around to see stoic Ni-T’o, a tribesman from several thousand years before his own time, astride lanky Bella, a Spanish soldier’s horse from the sixteenth century. Ni-T’o’s wife rode behind him, hands clasped gently around her husband’s waist. The two of them looked as if they had been born to the saddle. Their tribe’s elders claimed to have seen horses—and, much to Nate and Gonzalo’s alarm, the older than the hills Ninak-Mkateewa had oft opined that they were good eating—but they had never mastered them, and by the time that might have happened, the animal had seemingly disappeared from the Americas, not to return until the Spaniards brought them back.

Even so, it seemed to Nate that horsemanship must somehow be latent in American Indian blood, as they took to them like fish to water. He had seen the Apaches ride, a people truly one with their horse, despite only being introduced to them some score of years earlier. He had also met some of the Nez Perce from the far Northwest, the famed horse breeders from whom he had purchased his appaloosa mare, Poppy, a rare and precious blossom indeed, despite being named for such a common flower. And now, something serendipitous had happened; whatever bizarre act of God deposited them here had also brought a herd of horses that Nate theorized were native to the Americas. T’cumu had already tamed one, he had the knack. Nate intended to realize his plan to help his adopted people tame more of the wild mesa cayuses, until every single one of them could sit a saddle like an old cowhand. Then they would be much better equipped to survive in the New, New World, and would present a force to be reckoned with.

TS-TMM-P7-trbsmnHe paused to smile at himself. He had just thought of himself as “adopted.” Well, it had been their choice, and he was glad they had seen fit to welcome him into their fold. As far as he knew he was the only Texan in the Cretaceous. He was no longer welcome among the Cherokee, and hadn’t cared much for the US soldiers of German extraction he had been serving with anyway, a dour lot at best. These people here treated him like one of their own, Ni-T’o and T’cumu making it plain that they regarded him and Gonzalo as brothers, and he had come to feel the same way—an opinion the average nineteenth-century American military man would be very unlikely to arrive at. Things like race, creed and religion had never mattered much to Nate. It was his personal observation that people were pretty much all the same once you got past the accouterments of whatever society they hailed from. It was a dangerous world, and there were not many humans in it, so things were turning out better than he had expected. He figured he would find himself a nice little squaw to settle down with one day, and quite sensibly pushed all thoughts of the smoky-eyed Raven Priestess from his mind. It wouldn’t matter though, she would come to him in his dreams anyway, as she always did.

Despite the ever-present danger, a festive mood prevailed. This was no “Trail of Tears.” Today’s journey was very different from the misery of forcing the Cherokee away from their homes to a bleak future in a distant territory. These people were here by their own choice, with something to look forward to, a place of relative safety one thousand feet above a world teeming with monsters.

As if in answer to that last thought, a deep, rumbling growl sounded in the distance, sending a spike of dread through him that he felt all the way down to his gut. They were still in that world of monsters, and had another twenty miles to go.

Nate wheeled Poppy around in a circle, searching for the source of the noise. There, off to the East, a figure grew slowly larger, blurred by the heat rising from the shifting sands of the Drained Sea. Ni-T’o was already aware and acting, shouting terse orders to his people. They had planned for this, now they would have to put it to the test. Gonzalo galloped up on trusty Flavio, lance at the ready, helmet on, the wise-man no longer riding behind, having been safely deposited amongst his followers. The Spaniard looked like he had just sprung out of a picture in the history books, a conquistador come to life before his very eyes, and so he was. His dark eyes were narrowed and his face grim, the repentant, sensitive soul Nate had come to know temporarily gone, replaced by the hardened, professional soldier he had once been.

Both men began to load their firearms, Nate his prized pistol, and Gonzalo his arquebus, a somewhat less advanced weapon, but deadly at close range.

“I’m real low on ammo, I hope I don’t have to take the shot,” Nate said, scowling at the bag that held far too few bullets for a world that made the wild west look as tame as a city garden.

“As do I. Perhaps we can remedy that situation, given time. For now, I will trust first in my lance. It has served me well against these fell beasts so far.”

“Well, before you go playing Saint George again, let’s give the pikes a try. Hopefully they will keep the thing at bay long enough for the braves to get a shot at it, they’re great marksman, maybe they can take out its eyes like we talked about.”

The warriors were already in place, having formed two circles, the outermost made up of men holding the long, sharp, flint-tipped pikes, and another close behind with bows at the ready. The women lit their torches, ready to set the special arrows they had prepared ablaze. The children huddled together in the center, scared, but with teeth of their own, everyone old enough held a stone knife or ax in their hands as a last resort. What good they could do against a foe of such size was a question no one wanted answered. Gonzalo crossed himself as was his custom, and prayed fervently the creature would never reach that far. The very ground shook as the dragon drew inexorably nearer, its terrible roars like the rumble of coming thunder across the bleak expanse of the Drained Sea.

****

To be continued . . .

Time Spike: The Mysterious Mesa, Part Six: A Serpent in the Garden

TS-The-Mysterious-Mesa-P6-banner

 

Tilted Meadow Camp

Ni-T’o sat by the fire studying the bones he had recovered from the great beast that had expired nearby. They had been picked clean by the enormous flying lizards that played the role of vultures here, as well as a murder of crows from the mesa top, who were adapting quite well to the New, New World. The heavy remains of the unfortunate creature were undoubtedly good for something, he just hadn’t figured out what yet. No stranger to working with bone, the tribesman had simply never been presented with any quite so large. He held one of the odd, pointed, triangular plates that had grown in a line down the creature’s back before him, turning it over and over in the firelight. The strange growths were colored a striking sunset-orange framed by crimson, and smooth and glossy, like antlers. This one was of a medium size, about two hands in width and three in length. He pounded it with a rock and found it to be very sturdy. A smile came to his lips.

Ah! A digging spade! A use for it had come to him at last. Pleased at his inventiveness, he smiled. It would be a bit of a shame to use something so beautiful for such a dirty job, but the shape and weight were perfect for it. He would find a nice, straight branch in the morning and begin work, something to pass another day away while he waited for his companions to return from their sojourn on the mesa’s top. As usual, he could hardly wait to show his cousin T’cumu the new tool he would create, the poor fellow would hardly be able to hide his jealousy. Ni-T’o considered T’cumu to be a fair craftsman, but the poor fellow, try as he might, could never hope to match his own skills.

Still smiling, he picked up the arrow-making materials he had gathered earlier in the day, and set to work. As he carefully sculpted the flat stone into a razor sharp point, he felt a tell-tale prickle at the back of his neck— He was being watched. Pretending not to notice, he kept working, but his eyes were covertly scanning the surrounding darkness for the intruder he was certain lurked nearby. A whinny from Gonzalo’s ever-vigilant stallion, Flavio confirmed his suspicions.

It was time to stop feigning ignorance. Ni-T’o lit one of the torches he had prepared. With the torch in one hand and his trusty stone ax in the other, he entered the makeshift brush paddock, the safety of his three precious charges being paramount. The jet-black mare Bella nickered worriedly, and he spoke softly to her, urging her to be calm. Moving quickly, he lit the torches he had placed on poles all around the edges of the circular pen, just in case of such an event as this. Even the terrible beasts of this unthinkably ancient age disdained fire, and he hoped it would keep whatever was out there at bay, at least until he could get a good look at it, and determine if he would fight, or flee with the horses. The circle of light grew, illuminating most of the oddly canted meadow in flickering orange light. Ni-T’o’s sharp eyes scanned the surrounds. There! He saw motion in the brush, something was heading up the crumbling slope toward the mesa top. He caught only a glimpse, a shadow roughly the size of a man, but too fast and agile to be one.

Ni-T’o’s expression was grim. He would stay here close to the horses the rest of the night, taking no chances. He had a suspicion of what the visitor might be, and it was nothing pleasant. Looking for tracks and sign would have to wait for the morning. He gazed up at the mesa towering above him, its great, black bulk outlined against a dizzying expanse of gleaming stars. Retrieving his arrow-making tools, he continued his work by torchlight, always keeping one eye open for further danger. The horses occasionally came around to nuzzle his face and shoulders affectionately. This gave him some comfort, he had grown most fond of these intelligent and loyal animals that had come from the future along with his new friends, Nate and Gonzalo. He couldn’t help but worry for them, and hoped they would be safe from what he feared might be coming their way.

 

Mesa Top Camp

 

The morning of their second day on the mesa dawned warm and bright, the perpetual summer of the Cretaceous somewhat cooled by the elevation, and the salt-scented breezes wafting up from the adjacent ocean shore. Nate and Gonzalo rose to find T’cumu with the latest addition to their troop, the wild mare they had captured the previous day. Nate, considering himself something of an equine expert, came too close, and was rewarded with a swift, sneaky kick to his calf.

“Ouch!” he hollered loudly while hopping out of range, snarling obscenities at the beast. “That smarted, you mean little cuss!”

T’cumu shook his head, unable to understand why such an experienced horseman was so lacking in understanding of his precious prize. The “mesa cayuse” nuzzled him fondly, and he cooed back to her in the nonsense words she loved to hear as he fed her the fresh fruits he had gathered for her breakfast.

Gonzalo enjoyed a bit of a laugh at his unfortunate friend’s expense, until he came within range and became the recipient of a mean-spirited bite to his rear end.

“Mother of God! You monstrous beast!” he bellowed, aiming a swipe at the offending creature’s blunt, dark-furred muzzle, but she was far too fast for him, and retreated to the safety of T’cumu, who chided her in what his injured friends considered to be rather too gentle tones.

It was Nate’s turn to have a laugh as Gonzalo rubbed his posterior gingerly, cursing under his breath in a most unchristian fashion for one usually so devout.

“What comes around, goes around, my friend!” Nate told him, still nursing his own sore spot. Fortunately, their prides were wounded far more than their flesh, which was not seriously damaged beyond a bit of bruising.

T’cumu looked upon them pityingly. “Two big men afraid of my poor little horse!” he said sardonically in very clear English, a tongue that he was learning with astounding rapidity.

Nate grinned at this fine display of sarcasm, pleased that their tribesman friend was picking up the art from him. “I haven’t yet decided if this danged critter is a horse, or not!” Nate said haughtily, scowling at the unrepentant animal as it preened for its proud new master. Still favoring their hurts, they left the two lovebirds to their own devices, fleeing the sound of T’cumu’s sickeningly sweet crooning and the still half-wild mare’s answering snorts of delight.

Nate and Gonzalo strolled the quarter-mile to the edge of the mesa, which was cut as cleanly as if by a razor. The phenomenon had also sliced through the trunk of a tree, leaving the remaining half looking lopsided and forlorn, as if wondering what had happened to its former fullness.

Gonzalo studied the odd scene, eyes squinting under the glare of the primeval sun, already much too bright, even in the early morning.

“Nate, do you suppose that in the time this mesa came from that this tree’s other half is still there, sliced down the middle as perfectly as this?”

“I reckon it is. I can’t help but wonder what ended up next to it, though. Maybe a piece of this time’s world, including some of those devil-lizards.”

“One must wonder if any of those creatures came to be in our own eras?”

“Now, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it? Imagine one of those big dragons like the one we killed showing up for dinner, with some unsuspecting soul on the menu. Gives me a shudder just to think of it.” Nate reached up to grasp the monster’s fang beneath his shirt, where it hung on the leather necklace their tribesmen friends had made. Gonzalo sported one, too, souvenirs of their victory against a creature of mythical proportions, and all too real in its fury. They were lucky to have survived. The teeth were as long as steak knives.

“Well, at least we haven’t seen any of those awful things up here.” Gonzalo said, his hand instinctively going to the silver crucifix which hung incongruously beside his fang necklace.

“Yet.” Nate said with his usual sober take on things. “Eventually I figure those big critters will find their way across the Drained Sea, and maybe even be able to climb up here like we did.”

Gonzalo crossed himself, and whispered a prayer beneath his breath.

TS-TMM-tlsrusThey moved a bit closer to the edge, but not too close, fearing that it might be unstable. The ocean swept off into the distance, disappearing over the horizon in a blue haze. What lay beyond they couldn’t even hazard to guess, it seemed that the continent of North America ended here on this lonely stretch of beach in what would one day, perhaps, be Illinois. In the middle distance something broke the water, a huge, glossy hump of green the shade of wet moss. Their eyes widened as a monstrous head appeared, dwarfing even the great monsters of the land, rows of teeth the size of sabers lining long, crocodilian jaws. A snakelike tail made a mighty splash, and the stupendously large creature sank beneath the waves.

Not that long ago, the sight would have left the two men wide-eyed and breathless with amazement.

Nate just rubbed the back of his sweaty neck and said, matter-of-factly, “Looks like going for a swim is right out.”

Gonzalo let out a long, wavering whistle. “I would not dip even one toe in, not for all the gold in El Dorado!”

“It’s a darn shame, would have been nice to cool off on the way back to the village. Guess we better warn everyone to stay out of the water. Here be dragons, no fooling!”

“Is no place safe in this hellish world? The very Leviathan of Revelations swims that sea!”

Gonzalo frowned mightily at the view below, an indescribably sad expression on his face. Sometimes the never-ending perils of the New, New World were too much for even a seasoned soldier such as Gonzalo to take.

Nate saw this, and grew concerned for his often sensitive friend. “I have an idea, Gonzalo. After we get back to camp let’s find a wide spot in one of those creeks and we’ll go for a dip. I don’t think there’s anything up here worse than a lion or two, so it should be pretty safe.”

Gonzalo nodded, forcing a small smile. He knew very well that Nate worried about his ever-changing moods, and resolved to try harder to control them. He was still having trouble adjusting to their new life, who wouldn’t? Even so, it was not all bad. He had found friends, good ones, and valued their companionship highly. “That is an excellent idea Nate, a bath would be most welcome. I have no doubt that I smell a bit ripe.”

“Not too bad from over here. Just don’t get any closer, phew!” Nate kidded him, and they both laughed. It was too pretty a day to dwell on the negatives, best to just keep on living as best they could in a time and place full of dangers beyond reason. The wind whipped up across the mesa’s green fields, a welcome relief from the pervasive Cretaceous heat. Tiny seeds were lifted from the nodding heads of the meadow grass, to drift past in translucent clouds out over the dry, exposed bottom of the Drained Sea.

“Now there’s something to brighten your day,” Nate told Gonzalo, “Those are grass seeds blowing off the mesa. Maybe they’ll take root out there. The horses sure would be grateful.”

“In my youth on my father’s winery I was charged with keeping the weeds at bay. I think there is nothing more tenacious than grass. It will root in any available soil, no matter how poor!”

“Well, let’s hope so. Now we just need a little rain to go with it.”

On their way back to camp, thunder began to rumble in the distance. Ominous gray clouds were marching in from the ocean, and the wind grew stronger. By the time they arrived, rain had begun to fall.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Nate said glumly, pulling his wide-brimmed hat down firmly onto his head.

T’cumu, who could always be relied upon to be resourceful, had already begun work on a simple lean-to shelter. Gonzalo and Nate pitched in, and by the time the rain began to come down in buckets, they were protected from the worst of it. T’cumu fretted a bit about his new pet left standing out in the downpour, while Gonzalo and Nate were both secretly pleased that the cantankerous cayuse was receiving a bit of a drenching, thinking it might wash away some of her meanness.

“Have you decided on what you will name her?” Nate asked T’cumu.

“Not yet. To my people naming is . . .” He searched for the word from his growing English vocabulary. “Important. I must think on it for a time.”

“May I suggest ‘She-Devil’?” Nate said, giving his young friend a wry grin. T’cumu returned it with a sour face. In the eyes of her master, the young mare could do no wrong.

“I was going to suggest ‘Viper’!” Gonzalo joined in the fun, his humor having brightened despite the foul weather.

T’cumu harrumphed, and turned his gaze away from his teasing friends, chin held high to show that he was above such nonsense.

Nate scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Ya know, I been thinking. Just how in Sam Hill are we going to get T’cumu’s new horse down off of here?” Nate asked, scratching his chin.

Gonzalo frowned. “The chasm is the problem. Once across there, it won’t be too hard. I have no doubt that she is a sure-footed beast.”

“Yeah, the chasm. It almost killed me once. I don’t look much forward to crossing it again.”

T’cumu listened, his expression thoughtful. After a moment, he had an idea. “Rope. We make rope.”

“Yeah, that might do the trick,” Nate said. “You can do that?”

“Yes. I can make good rope. Very strong.”

“Teach us how, and we will help you!” Gonzalo chimed in eagerly.

“We’ll need a lot. The rain is letting up, so we best get to it,” Nate said. The air smelled fresh, and full of flowers. At moments like these it really was hard to believe he was so far and gone forever from Texas.

****

They followed T’cumu around, harvesting the materials from the mesa’s abundant supply of familiar, and almost familiar, vegetation. When they were ready, they all sat in a circle in the shade while T’cumu taught them the techniques of his people. There were some tricks involved, but it was a fairly simple, if tedious, process.

TS-TMM-rp“You are lucky,” T’cumu told them with a smug grin. “My rope is better than that made by Ni-T’o. I will teach you to make strong rope!”

Nate and Gonzalo both rolled their eyes. They had heard this old song before, from both T’cumu and Ni-T’o. The cousins were fast friends, but they did have a bit of a rivalry going. As near as the men from the future could tell, the two tribesmen were both gifted craftsman of excellent and equal skill, although there was no point in telling them that.

Once Nate and Gonzalo got the hang of it, they were able to pass the time in conversation as yard after yard of sturdy rope grew from their labors. The talking ran its course, then the three men sat quietly for a time, each in deep thought.

It was T’cumu who broke the silence. “I know her name now!” he proclaimed proudly.

Gonzalo and Nate looked up at their young friend with interest.

“She is Oklilinchi, the dawn of the day.”

Nate nodded. “Pretty name. It goes with that dusky yellow coat of hers.”

Gonzalo concurred. “Yes, it fits her. According to those future men you spoke with, Nate, we are millions of years closer to the dawn of time than we were before. Perhaps we could start a new dawn for humanity here, make a better world for ourselves than the one we left. I do hope so.”

“Well, I figure we are on that path, let’s see where it leads. Meanwhile, we just keep doing the best we can with what we have.”

A few hours later they needed a rest, their hands sore and tired. Nate looked at their results and scratched his chin with a frown on his face. Despite their best efforts, the piles of coiled rope were still obviously too small.

“We’ve done fairly well, but it ain’t going to be enough by no means. It’ll take us at least a week to make all we need for a bridge sturdy enough for a horse to pass over, and we can’t leave Ni-T’o down below on his own that long, it’s asking for trouble.”

“Gonzalo, Nate, you go to the village with Ni-T’o, bring our people here. More people, more rope! I will stay with Oklilinchi.”

“But T’cumu, it will take us at least a week to get there and back again, maybe more. You would be here all by yourself, it’s too dangerous!” Gonzalo protested.

T’cumu just laughed. “Down there, more danger! Here is safer.”

“He has a point there.” Nate agreed, “I’d rather be in the lion’s den than on the run from hungry dragons. Do you think your people will agree to coming here?”

“Many will say yes. The visitors from the other village need a new home. Some of my own people will come, too. Tell Ni-T’o I say this is a good place to live. He will know what to say to the elders.”

T’cumu looked confident. Nate and Gonzalo knew he was fearless, and had proven himself quite capable of facing unexpected dangers. Despite some misgivings, they consented to the new plan without questioning it.

“I wanted to get people up here anyway, the sooner the better I guess,” Nate said, “We’ll bring back tools, whatever it takes to found a new village up here. Once we do that, we can start ranching these here cayuse, and find out if we can make use of them or not. I’m itching to try.”

With that decided, Gonzalo and Nate gathered their gear while T’cumu placed the coiled lengths of rope they had made over Oklilinchi’s broad back. She didn’t bat an eye at the load, eager to please her beloved new master. T’cumu started walking, holding her lead, but he didn’t even to tug on it, she fell into step behind him just as neat as could be. Nate and Gonzalo followed along, knowing to stay well clear of her sharp hooves.

****

After a pleasant walk through the idyllic countryside of the mesa, they came again to the fallen log bridge, which hung uncomfortably high above the chasm created by massive slabs of the mesa breaking free and falling into the short-lived, but powerful, currents of the Drained Sea. As they drew near, T’cumu froze, and motioned for them to halt.

“Stay here, please.” he told them in a tense tone. He tied his ferocious little native horse to a convenient sapling, both of his friends being unwilling to even try to hold her lead, then approached the log bridge cautiously, checking the ground for sign. Traversing the area around the uprooted base, he leaped onto the trunk, as nimbly as his namesake, the bobcat, might. He examined the mossy bark thoroughly, a grim look on his face. Satisfied, he returned to his friends.

“Something crossed the bridge,” he told them in his own tongue, speaking a bit slowly so that his student, Nate, would have a better chance at understanding. “Maybe last night.”

“What do you think it was?” Gonzalo asked him in the same language, his skills much greater than Nate’s, having learned a dialect descended from it back in his own time.

“I don’t know. It was clever. It left no clear prints.”

“A lion?” Nate asked in Spanish, the language they all shared the most proficiency in.

“No. It walked on two legs.” T’cumu answered, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the surroundings. “I think it’s been watching us.”

“A man?” Gonzalo asked.

TS-TMM-wlvrnT’cumu only shrugged. Whatever it was had been careful not to leave much of a trail. A man could do that, of course, but there were some animals capable of it, too, like the wolverine. But wolverines didn’t walk on two legs. He shook his head, and made the signal that his friends had come to learn meant “Keep a sharp eye out.”

After Nate’s near demise during their last crossing, they had decided to make a few improvements to the bridge before attempting it again. Upon ascertaining that there were no giant flying monsters currently in the vicinity, Nate secured one end of the rope they had made to the largest of the sturdy, upended roots at the tree’s base. T’cumu, walking as swiftly and confidently as if crossing a shallow stream, carried the rest of the line, playing it out as he went. When he reached the section where branches began to grow from the thick trunk, he chose a strong one to tie the other end to, then tied the remainder to the next such branch as a backup. The rope was very taut, a man crossing the tree from the elevated mesa side could now hold onto it just over his head to start the journey. By the time he reached the branches it would be at waist height. T’cumu grinned as he demonstrated, using the rope as a guide on his way back up the tree, then turning to show them his method of following the line down.

“He makes it look so dang easy,” Nate grumbled, scowling at the still very unsettling trip ahead of him.

“I will go first, if you wish,” Gonzalo offered with his typical chivalry, although his face was nearly as green as Nate’s. Neither of them were at all fond of heights.

“No, thanks. That didn’t work out so good for me last time. I better just get it done before I get too skittish to go.” With that, he grasped the rope firmly in his hands, tested his weight against it, and stepped out onto the slightly too steep slope of the tree. Gritting his teeth, he took another step, and another, keeping one hand holding tightly to the rope as he moved the next ahead between steps. After a few more steps he got the hang of it, and the next thing he knew T’cumu’s calming hand was on his shoulder at the beginning of the branches, where safer and easier going began.

Nate looked back, wiping the sweat from his brow, now that he felt safe enough to free one hand. Gonzalo waved bravely, then began the journey himself. When he joined his companions on the other side, they all breathed a sigh of relief.

T’cumu smiled at them, and raised his hand in farewell. “Come back soon!” he told them.

“We will. You be careful now, T’cumu!” Nate replied, still concerned at leaving their young friend alone, no matter how capable he was.

“Yes, may God be with you my friend!” Gonzalo said, his face a picture of worry

“See you!” T’cumu said cheerfully before running back up the log without even bothering with the rope, making his friends cringe in fear. With a final wave he disappeared over the mesa’s edge. Nate and Gonzalo just shook their heads in amazement, and began the long scramble back down.

****

T’cumu spent an hour scouting about the area near the bridge. Something had arrived on the mesa from below, and he very much wanted to know what it was. His attempts at tracking it proved unsuccessful, so he returned to camp, wary all the while. As he made himself a simple meal from a squirrel he had trapped, he began to feel that there were eyes upon him. Being an expert hunter, T’cumu was certain now that he, himself, was being hunted. His very core shouted danger! He still wasn’t sure what it was, but he didn’t think it was a man. That made things easier, no matter how clever an animal might be, a man could always outsmart it. Smiling inwardly, he hatched a plan.

Nonchalantly placing a length of snare line over his shoulder along with his leather tool bag, he sat about improving Oklilinchi’s paddock fence, making the walls higher, and more difficult to cross, from within or without. As he worked he could sense that he was being watched, but made no motion that would betray his awareness. He regularly scanned his surroundings for approaching danger, because that was a normal thing for anyone to do, but he made no obvious attempt to spot where his watcher might be hiding, although he did think it might be in a thick copse of trees a fair distance away. That told him something about his hunter, it must have good eyesight in order to watch him from afar.

After what he decided was a long enough while, he set his tools down and hurried off into another copse in the opposite direction of the suspected hiding place. The rope for his snares was still over his shoulder. Once he was sure he was completely out of sight from anything that wasn’t standing right next to him, he quickly defecated, but didn’t bury it as would usually be his practice, leaving it instead as bait. The smell of his soil would be something any animal stalking him would be very interested in. He began to grunt loudly, as if he were painfully constipated, and then added several loud imitation farts, a trick performed by blowing into the palms of the hands, a perennial favorite of young male children. Continuing to make a variety of such disgusting sounds, he set a snare, the same type that had accidentally caught Nate. He still felt bad about that every time he saw his friend favor his injured leg, and vowed to make it up to him somehow one day. The snare in place, he let out a big sigh of relief, and came out of the trees wiping his behind with a handful of leaves. Nature’s call thus heeded, he returned to his work, looking forward to seeing what his trap would yield.

It was late afternoon when he heard the snare snap along with a startled snarl. So, it was indeed not a man. He quickly untied Oklilinchi’s halter, having decided that if something bad did happen to him he wanted her to be able to escape to roam free. He was confident that he could always find her again if she did run off. She whinnied fearfully, but remained in place, watching T’cumu as he made haste for the copse of trees, weapons drawn.

The snarling grew louder, and the branches around the snare moved with the thrashing of whatever was captured within. T’cumu entered the small clearing to behold a terrifying, but none too surprising sight: A demon-lizard, of the kind they had encountered during the four-legged-goose hunt. It hung by one leg, which was not too different from that of a falcon’s, ending in deadly claws. T’cumu saw that its free leg sported a long, curved claw like a rooster’s spur, a twin to the one he had shaped into a knife, and now held in his hand. Eyes wide, T’cumu looked at the entangled leg. To his amazement, the claw on that side was missing! He smiled coldly then as the creature’s eyes fell on him, and it paused in its movements.

“We meet again! I told my friends I hoped I would get a chance to kill you with your own claw, and that is what I shall do.” He stepped forward cautiously, well aware that even though the demon-lizard was in a vulnerable position it was still dangerous. Sure enough, it lunged at him with its long, serpentine neck, fangs snapping with a loud hiss. T’cumu was ready for that, and dodged the bite. He made a stab at its throat, but it was too fast, and he only grazed it. He needed to end this quickly, and readied himself for another attempt. That was when the creature raised its free leg, and with a swift, sure motion driven by a very unexpected intelligence, sliced through T’cumu’s rope with its remaining dagger-claw. It flipped over as it fell, landing upright a scant few feet from T’cumu.

T’cumu steadied himself, raising his stone ax and the claw knife. He doubted he had much of a chance with an opponent of such speed and power, but he would end his days heroically, fighting to his last breath.

With a shrieking cry, the demon-lizard charged.

****

To be continued . . .