Time Spike: The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous

The unlikely foursome of an AWOL US cavalry scout, a repentant conquistador, and two young chiefs of a neolithic pre-mounds tribe have formed a friendship and alliance that breaks the bonds of centuries and cultures. They are now the ‘dragon’-slaying four Great Chiefs of the young Mesa Peoples and Allied Tribes, a human civilization growing against steep odds in the Earth’s Cretaceous Period (introduced in Time Spike: The Mysterious Mesa).

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The unlikely foursome of an AWOL US cavalry scout, a repentant conquistador, and two young chiefs of a neolithic pre-mounds tribe have formed a friendship and alliance that breaks the bonds of centuries and cultures. They are now the ‘dragon’-slaying four Great Chiefs of the young Mesa Peoples and Allied Tribes, a human civilization growing against steep odds in the Earth’s Cretaceous Period (introduced in Time Spike: The Mysterious Mesa).

These bold heroes now face a formidable foe, not the enormous dinosaurs that roam this ancient world, but other humans! The rapacious Rattlesnake Cult from the City of the Pyramids has laid siege to Stone Wall Village. Only the newly-minted First Cavalry of the Cretaceous, brave pre-mounds warriors astride a prehistoric equine species native to Pleistocene North America have a chance of saving their kinfolk and restoring peace and prosperity in the lush and deadly New New World. Here comes the cavalry!

CHAPTER ONE: A CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS

Fort Lookout, Mesa Top

Nate Tucker kissed the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was the Raven Priestess, worshiped by her people. A crowd of onlookers surrounded them, which didn’t seem to bother her one bit. He could hear Gonzalo’s soft laughter nearby. As might be expected, his friend was 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, what month, or even what year, except 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 was the woman in his arms, the veritable living goddess he dreamed of every night since they met. After a long, blissful time, their lips parted. The Raven Priestess laughed in her odd, musical, way. Her smoky, amber eyes locked on his, a silent promise this was nowhere near over. She stroked his stubbled cheek before she broke their embrace.

When the kiss ended, Nate looked around at a sea of faces, full of smiles. His adopted people and their visitors from the City of the Pyramids, who all enjoyed the spectacle. Coming to his senses, he began to blush. Gonzalo walked up to clap him on the back.

“Ah, Nate, what is your secret?” he asked. He laughed at his friend’s discomfiture, “Everywhere we go, it seems a beautiful woman kisses 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 alone and unwanted. The ache 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 was embarrassed by all the attention, and supremely unamused by Gonzalo’s barbs.

“You cut me to the quick! Yes, while it is true 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, if I could find any holy fathers in these devil-infested realms.”

Gonzalo’s eyes narrowed then, focused on something behind Nate, and his smile soured into a frown. “Ah, speak of those devils, here comes one now!”

Ninak-Mkateewa, self-appointed wise man of the Mesa People and general irritant, 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 added a formidable-looking piece of ceremonial headgear to his regalia, fashioned from the head of the lizard-demon T’cumu 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 disputatious 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 to draw attention, which wasn’t necessary since all eyes were upon him, some in wonder, some in terror. His beady, black eyes squinted from their wrinkled nests to stare at the Raven Priestess in a rude fashion. He moved sideways in a high-step dance toward her, growling and muttering ed all the while in a tone full of menace tones. Her guards moved 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, unruffled by his challenge. Nate thought they resembled a hawk and a field mouse.

“I think our madman has met his match,” Gonzalo said as he watched, fascinated.

“I’m thinking he has no idea what he’s gotten himself 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, to see how this test of wills would play out.

Ninak-Mkateewa came in close, to test her composure. If anything, she looked bored. He began to dance a slow circle around her, as he sniffed the air, rattles shaking like an enraged diamondback. The Raven Priestess remained undaunted, and didn’t bother to turn as he passed behind her. An aloof smile remained on her face.

The crowd was silent as the confrontation went on. Gonzalo almost found himself with pity the cantankerous 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 rattles ceased as he came to a stop in front of her, his eyes locked on hers in a contest, but neither of them moved or blinked. The Raven Priestess no longer smiled. After what seemed like a long time to those gathered, the old man laughed. After a moment, the Raven Priestess laughed with him, 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 led her forward with chivalrous aplomb. Her guard fell in behind, then the entire gathering. Nate and Gonzalo stood there to digest what had happened.

“Well, that was a bit disappointing,” Nate said.

“I must confess, I hoped she would put the imp in his place,” Gonzalo agreed.

I hoped she would wring his scrawny neck, and it would serve him right.”

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

“Oh, how wonderful!” Nate replied without meaning it at all. “I bet there’ll be a big hootenanny tonight. It 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.”

They retrieved their horses and thanked the young braves who’d cared for them. The young men looked pleased to have been of service to their new great chiefs, the dragon-slayers who led them all to safety. As they returned to duty at the bridge, their faces grew long. Nate knew all too well what it was like to be stuck on guard duty when everyone else was off having a good time and determined these two would be relieved that evening, so they could attend whatever Saturnalia was destined to take place. Of course, it would make two other young fellows miserable, but that’s just how things go when you’re a grunt.

Nate and Gonzalo trailed along behind the rest, leading their horses at a comfortable amble. The procession had traveled about a quarter of a mile when a runner came back to find them.

“Great Chiefs! Ninak-Mkateewa asks you to come with your horses!”

Gonzalo and Nate shared a long-suffering look, then mounted up.

When they reached the head of the procession, Ninak-Mkateewa was tapping his toe.

“The Raven Priestess and I grow weary. We will ride with you.” he announced,

Nate and Gonzalo rolled their eyes in unison.

“I will take the old scoundrel, and you the fair maiden,” Gonzalo said, resigned to his fate. “The Lord continues to punish me for my many sins. I must bear it all with humility.”

“I heard that, Gonzalo. I have learned more of your foreign tongues than you think.” Ninak-Mkateewa told him in an offended tone, but smiling despite himself. He knew damn well he annoyed them and enjoyed every minute of it. Nate and Gonzalo had figured out if they fought back, it only encouraged him, so most of the time they bore his abuse in silence, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of a reaction.

Nate brought Poppy over to the waiting Raven Priestess, where she stood in her indigo robes and gold and silver ornaments. Tresses of jet-black hair fell all the way to her slender waist and rippled in the breeze. He was so flummoxed earlier, he hadn’t noticed she wasn’t wearing her usual midnight-blue body paint. Her light-bronze skin glowed in the sunlight. To Nate’s eyes she was a sylph from ancient myth, stepped out of an enchanted grove, ready to work her charms on him. She favored him with a radiant smile and he feared all that was left of his brains would melt into butter.

Nate reached his hand down to her, doing his best to stop its nervous tremor. Her touch sent an electric charge up his arm. Damnation! No woman had ever made him feel this way. He was way out of his element, into strange new territory, wonderful but terrifying at the same time. He needed to get a grip on himself before he turned into a smitten fool. The Raven Priestess’s ever-attentive guards formed a step for her with their hands, and she flew up onto his mare’s wide back. She folded her lithe arms around Nate’s waist, the warmth of her supple form a delicious pressure against his back. He thought he might pass out, but took a deep breath and found enough presence of mind to signal Poppy into a gentle walk.

A mile had passed by when two riders approached from ahead. It was their dear friends Ni-T’o and T’cumu, the other newly minted great chiefs of the conglomeration of time-lost tribes who comprised the Mesa People. They had been brought word of their esteemed visitor’s arrival and rode fast to meet them.

Ni-T’o, being the eldest, lifted his hand in greeting.

“I bid welcome to the Raven Priestess and all who attend her. You do us great honor. Come now to our village, and we will share food and entertainments.”

His welcome was sincere, but a question weighed on his mind: Why are you here? It would have to wait. Directness was not the way of his people. The questions would come later, and, perhaps, the answers.

The Raven Priestess smiled in her bewitching way and raised her hand in return. Her captain, whose custom it was to speak for her, returned the courtesy.

“Thank you, Great Chief Ni-T’o! It gives the Raven Priestess immense pleasure to meet you under happier circumstances. When last we were together, we faced terrible darkness. You fought by our side, at dire loss to your kin. We have come to thank you for your courage and sacrifice, and to honor you as our friends and allies”

Ni-T’o and T’cumu bowed their heads in polite response, then motioned the procession to move forward.

“Did you understand what was said, Nate?” Gonzalo asked him in English.

“I caught most of it, I’ve been working at it. Looks like I was right, there’s going to be a big party.”

The cousins brought their mounts into step next to their friends. Although they kept their glances subtle, Nate knew Ni-T’o and T’cumu were more than a bit astonished to see their revered Raven Priestess in such a cozy arrangement with him. They’d been there the first time she had kissed him at the City of the Pyramid’s gates, but must have chalked it up to the heat of the moment. Now it was obvious from the way the Raven Priestess had fastened herself onto Nate’s back like a limpet on a river stone that a relationship was ready to evolve. When Nate thought about the possibility it made him dizzy, as his mind vacillated between desire and trepidation.

The parade swelled in size, with more people joining the group as they passed through work camps and outlying farms. The village of Mesa Top was growing so fast, it would be a city soon. It was kept busy with the need to feed more mouths.

Their visitors gasped and sighed with delight as they traveled across the idyllic realm of the mesa’s heights. Far across one of the wide, grassy fields, a large herd of the odd, one-horned antelopes grazed. Beyond them a group of slender camels nibbled at young leaves along the edge of the small woods dotting the area. The city folk pointed and shouted in surprise at the sight of such unusual animals.

“What are they?” the captain of the Raven Warriors asked.

Ni-T’o and T’cumu shrugged.

“We don’t know,” T’cumu answered, “but the meat of the horned ones is very tasty. We think they are a cousin to the pronghorn antelope of our own time.”

Ni-T’o nodded his concurrence and said, “Gonzalo once saw the long-necked ones back in his world, in a land far across the sea. He calls them camels, and says the people there rode them, like we do these horses. There are other strange beasts as well. Look, over there.”

Ni-T’o pointed to the pride of lions that watched the procession from their vantage point atop a rise in the middle distance. The predators were unlikely to take on such a large group of humans, but everyone felt their hungry eyes upon them, which gave them a chill even in the increased heat of late morning.

“Beware the great hunting cats,” T’cumu told them. “They are much larger than cougars, and hunt in packs like wolves. For all its tranquility, the mesa is not without peril.”

“This land looks so much like home, yet I have never seen animals such as these,” the Raven Captain remarked, his hand on the handle of the stone ax at his belt, just in case. “Even so, they do seem to be akin to the creatures we know. Tell, me, have you seen any of the terrible lizard demons up here?”

“Only one, which followed me from below. These are its claws.” T’cumu handed his trophies to the man, who studied them with admiration. “Be careful, they’re sharp.”

“Sharp, indeed! Most impressive, my friend. That must have been quite a battle.”

“I would not care to do it again.” T’cumu smiled at the praise. “Nate surmises the animals of the mesa are from a time long before our people came to these lands, but not so long ago as the realms of the demon-lizards, whose time was in years beyond count. One cannot say for sure, but Ni-T’o has drawn the conclusion despite their fearsome mien, they aren’t demons at all, but the animals of that ancient era. Although, in the case of this fellow, I wouldn’t be so sure.” T’cumu took the claw daggers back and returned them to their pride of place on his belt.

“Whatever they are,” Ni-T’o said, “the big lizard-beasts are dangerous, but some not as much so as others. Many are plant-eaters, enormous, yes, but no more fearsome than a bull moose. Up here on the mesa, there are many animals we know, such as bison and elk, but much larger than those we are accustomed to, giants to our eyes. Those animals that are new to us must have passed out of existence before our time. It is very curious, like all things in these strange lands.”

The Raven Priestess, who had listened to the conversation, pointed to a flock of crested redbirds in the branches of a nearby tree like scarlet fruit come to life. She pointed to herself, the expression on her face asking the question. Gonzalo understood at once.

“Yes, Priestess, there are ravens here,” Gonzalo told her in the native dialect that came closest to her language, “When we first beheld the mesa from across the Drained Sea, one flew over us coming from this direction. We thought it was a good sign.”

This made the Raven Priestess utter a merry laugh as she cast her eyes about, in search of her namesakes among the scattered trees. Nate turned toward Gonzalo and gave him a meaningful look that said don’t encourage her.

Gonzalo grinned, but Ni-T’o and T’cumu agreed with Nate. A personage like the Raven Priestess did not venture far from her seat of power. She had come for a reason, and they still didn’t know what it was. Nate was beginning to dread being at the epicenter of what was destined to be the Mesa People’s gossip of the week, or year. As much as he was attracted to her, he was also concerned about the strange sway the woman held over him. She was a powerful figure, and people like her had a lot more on their minds than what they allowed others to see. Why was she here? He doubted it was just to get to know him better, as nice as that might turn out to be.

Mesa Top Village stood on a low range about twenty miles from the bridge, at the crescent-shaped mesa’s widest point. They were a mile away from the area of fields and meadows where Nate and Gonzalo built their homes and a spacious horse paddock.

A thoughtful look came onto T’cumu’s handsome, tanned face. Without drawing the attention of the passengers mounted behind Nate and Gonzalo, he made a small hand motion, one of the signals the group had formulated during their adventures. The other three caught it, and gave him the attention he requested. T’cumu smiled, cast his eyes downward at his horse, stroked her neck, then looked back at them.

They knew what he was getting at. Yes, the captured native horses were corralled just ahead. Was that something they wanted their visitors to see? Perhaps not just yet. As far as they knew, availability of the valuable animals in such large numbers was an advantage they held over all the other settlements. There was no sense in spreading the word, at least not until they were more sure of their guest’s motives. The city folk knew little of horses, and had no clue T’cumu’s mount was different from the others. It only took a moment for the decision to be made. Each of them changed their course to the right, so they would pass through meadows where the copse of trees would hide the herd from sight. They liked the Ravens, to be sure, they had fought together, and considered them allies, but they were still city folk, members of what was the most powerful domain in the New New World. They would save the decision on how much to trust them for later.

***

CHAPTER TWO: LOVEBIRDS

It was late morning after the big party and Nate’s head was still swimming from the crazy locoweed he had been smoking. He had a vague memory of several young warriors carrying him down from the village in the wee hours to deposit him gently in his bed. He rolled out of its warm comfort then 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 thought he was asking if he wanted breakfast, which he was quite sure he did not, at least not while his head was performing a slow spin. He managed to wave back and tell the fellow 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 quite out of sorts, but slightly more presentable. Walking very carefully to prevent himself from tipping over, he arrived at the horse paddock, where he found 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. She waved merrily at him as she went around for another lap.

“This just keeps getting better.” He took a deep breath, 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 cayuses 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 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, she 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. Her grin 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 confer 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 when she asked 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, while little purple spots formed 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 didn’t want to, but the voice was insistent, so he opened one bleary gray eye. Gonzalo’s worried countenance hovered 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.

“Of course not! It was a jest to see if you were truly awake.”

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 understood 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, “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 head out after her. Which way did she go?”

Ni-T’o pointed toward the northwest, the as yet unexplored upper half of the mesa.

“Well, she can’t get too far ahead of me on foot.”

“Perhaps we should come with you?” 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, put her tackle on, shooing off their peaked friend as he protested the help. Gonzalo dashed to the nearby camp and Nate’s cabin, returning a few minutes later with lunch wrapped in corn husks along with a water skin. He also brought Nate’s cavalry saber and bow and arrows, it never being wise to leave the relative safety of the village environs without protection, which Nate was most grateful for. Nate climbed on and set off at a trot.

***

CHAPTER THREE: DEMONS IN THE AIR

Gonzalo stood on the wide, shady porch of his Spanish-style mud brick hacienda, 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 to the Texan. “How is married life treating you?”

“Fine, just fine,” Nate replied 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 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 heading to the archery range. Care to join me?

“That sounds like just the thing. Let’s go.”

Nate and Gonzalo strolled to the range they set up out past the horse paddocks and prepared their targets. Nate struggled with the ancient weapon at first but now showed signs of improvement. With little hope of obtaining more bullets in the New New World, he knew his life might one day depend on it.

“I’ve been thinking, Gonzalo,” Nate said, pausing during his turn at the target. “These shortbows were fine for shooting normal-sized game back in the tribe’s own time, but here they’re under-powered. A lot of those arrows were bounced off that dragon’s thick hide. 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’re going to have to go back down there to support our allies. I would prefer some better firepower. 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 work with. If we show them what we want, I am sure they can not only create a longbow, but 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.”

“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 paddock, leading the small herd of recently captured yearlings around behind their own mounts—Oklilinchi, T’cumu’s tamed native ‘cayuse’, and Bella, Ni-T’o’s sturdy Spanish mare.

Nate smiled at their progress. 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.

Nate and Gonzalo watched for a while, leaning against the eight-foot-high split-rail fence they’d built, a major improvement over the improvised brush fence it 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 unexplored, northwestern portion of the mesa.

When Ni-T’o and T’cumu noticed their friends arrived, they trotted their mounts to greet them.

“The horses are looking good, fellas. Well done.” Nate told them, a broad smile of approval on his face.

“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 and deferred 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 batch of 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 the 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’d like your help. It would require your crafting skills.”

Both men would have helped their friends with whatever they might ask, but at the mention of crafting skills, an activity most 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 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, all of them feeling the need to stretch their legs instead of riding. They drew near Nate’s cabin, where the meadow was lined with the colorful tipis of the Ravens.

One of them called out as they were passing by.

“Where are you headed, friends?” he asked in a cheerful tone.

Nate gave his companions a subtle shake of his head, which everyone understood.

“Just out for a stroll, maybe scare up some rabbits for supper,” Ni-T’o answered. They all smiled, returned the man’s wave, then continued. Once they were well out of earshot, Nate spoke in low tones, “I like the Ravens, I truly do. Hell, I’m married to their leader, but they are still city folk. I want to keep at least some things under our hats. If this longbow works, it may one day have to be used for more than monster shooting. Let’s see how things go the next few weeks. Maybe then we will know for sure how much we can trust them.”

His friends murmured agreement as it was a wise course of action.

The party strolled through the trees dotting the mesa’s grasslands. It was a bit hot, as usual, but the occasional breezes that found their way from the vast Western Ocean a thousand feet below provided refreshment. They walked in silence for a while and enjoyed camaraderie and the natural beauty that surrounded them. Ni-T’o pointed at a lone tree in a flower-strewn meadow.

“That one.” he announced, and they turned 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. The large leaves were long, slender-pointed ovals, dark green, with a sheen on the top. 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.”

“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, as if a snake had bitten it. He switched between nursing his bloody pricked finger and spewing out a string of curses that would have made the most vulgar sea dog of a sailor blush. When he ran out of Spanish, the pious Catholic switched to the English he had learned in sixteenth-century London, which gave 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.”

Ni-T’o, avoided the tree’s impressive defenses and cut a suitable branch with his stone ax.  Nate and Gonzalo marveled at how such a primitive-looking tool could slice through wood with a sharpness equal to or better than the finest steel.

“This is good wood for bows. The best,” Ni-T’o said, showing it to Nate and Gonzalo. T’cumu cast around for his own branch. Nate and Gonzalo gave each other a sage look. The usual rivalry between the cousins had begun Each would strive to outdo the other in form and function. The two men from the farther future thought competition was a good thing and laid their bets on whose bow would shoot the best, Nate chose Ni-T’o, and Gonzalo opted for 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, cousins excused themselves, and hurried off to their homes to get started. Nate and Gonzalo shared a good laugh. The game was on, and they were certain by morning each man would be ready to test a bow.

“Oh no, I forgot to tell them 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 land in my cookpot!”

***

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