The Forever Engine – Snippet 44



October 9, 1888, The Lim River valley, Serbia

We kept the fire going, built it up, and had no more trouble from the animals.

Others straggled in over the course of the next hour, more than I thought would have survived. We’d been the Tail-End Charlies, so most of the animals had concentrated on us at first. When we kicked their asses, the flock, or pack, or whatever, lost a lot of its enthusiasm for the hunt. Many of our survivors had thrown away their rifles and packs. Gordon was among those who came in, but he didn’t have anything to say at first. At least he still had his pack.

Gabrielle and I had matching bites on our left arms, and she had a slash in her left thigh. She had been wearing her long overcoat over her riding habit, so the teeth hardly broke the skin, but the long knifelike spur on the bird’s foot had sliced through her overcoat, skirt, riding breeches, and into her thigh. If not for all those layers, the wound might have killed or crippled her.

I made her take off the coat and black jacket, rolled up the blood-stained sleeve of her blouse, cleaned the wound with rubbing alcohol, and then wrapped it with a clean linen bandage, both from her own haversack. I did the same with her thigh, first cutting away that leg of her breeches up to the hip. The slash looked deep, but it wasn’t bleeding all that badly so I just bandaged it good and tight. I pulled off my coat, and she bandaged my arm. I made sure we cleaned all the wounds thoroughly; the last thing we needed out here was an infection.

“You got any antibiotic cream or powder in that first-aid kit?”

“I do not know what that is,” she answered.

“No, I was afraid of that.”

We had two animal carcasses close by the fire, and we looked them over. They were like the biggest wild turkeys, or maybe fighting cocks, you could imagine, probably seventy or eighty pounds each, but with much thicker, more muscular legs and broader feet. They didn’t have beaks so much as long, bony snouts lined with small, sharp teeth. Their heads were too big for birds, though, and featured a flaring transverse crest across the back of their skulls which reminded me of the hood of a triceratops, but in feathers.

Their forearms bore a pretty complete set of long feathers, but nowhere near enough for flight. The substantial and muscular forearms ended in grasping talons. Their main weapons were the long, knifelike spurs on their hind legs, the ones which almost got Gabrielle and sliced up one of the Marines badly. The giveaway, though, was the tail, long and thin and about a meter long, as long as the rest of the bird’s body.

Neither the Brits nor the Bavarians had ever seen anything remotely like them. I had. Sarah had gone through a dinosaur phase, and that meant I’d gone through a dinosaur phase. I’d taken her to the Field Museum for the opening of a new exhibit on the late Cretaceous period a few years back. It included the first reconstructions of Velociraptor mongoliensis after the fossil finds that established it was feathered. The ones in adventure films were featherless and always larger, about man-sized, I guess for dramatic effect, which was over twice as big as the real animals. These carcasses weren’t that big, but they were bigger than the V. mongoliensis Sarah and I had seen, and the heads looked different, shorter and wider. Maybe they were a related species, like dromaeosaurus, or maybe something I’d never seen — something nobody from my time had ever seen. Who cared? They were night predators, hunted in packs, and were plenty big enough for me.

The fire burned smoky from the damp wood, and the wind kept changing, blowing the smoke in our faces no matter where we sat. Gabrielle and I got our coats back on and sat together, shoulder to shoulder, near enough to the fire to catch its warmth but far enough the smoke wasn’t too bad. At least when the wind gusted around we had time to close our eyes and hold our breath.

We hadn’t had a real meal since morning, and once the raptors — I couldn’t help thinking of them that way — seemed done for the night, some of the men started eating. None of us considered roasting one of the dead animals, interestingly enough.

I took a tin of bully beef from my haversack and Gabrielle and I shared it, pulling strings of the greasy corned beef from the can with our fingers and spreading them on hardtack. It gave me an entirely new appreciation for MREs.

Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?

Somebody got a kettle going, and O’Mara came around with two tin cups of tea for us and knelt in the grass beside me. The tea was sweet with sugar and evaporated milk, almost overpowering the flavor of the tea itself, but it hit the spot all the same.

“One of my lot’s still missin’,” O’Mara said. “Don’t know about the Fritzes. Don’t think their sergeant has done a count.”

“Okay. Thanks for keeping me up to date, but you need to make a report to Captain Gordon.”

O’Mara looked over toward Gordon, standing by himself at the edge of the light circle, and spat.

“Corporal, things are going to get worse here. I’m betting they’re going to get lots worse. Undercutting Gordon might give you some personal satisfaction, but it won’t keep your men alive.”

“The men’ll follow you, sir.”

“Well, thank you for saying that, but the Bavarians won’t, and we need them. All that keeps them here are their orders to work with Gordon.”

O’Mara thought that over, chewed on it like a piece of gristle he was reluctant to swallow, but eventually he nodded.

“As you say, sir. You want me to talk to the Fritz sergeant?”

“No, I will. He outranks you. He probably won’t take an ass-chewing from you all that well.”

That got a smile from him. He rose and walked across the fire lit circle to Gordon, came to attention, saluted, and gave a report I could see but not hear. I looked around the circle until I located Melzer.