TIME SPIKE – snippet 27:
Stephen McQuade dozed off and on as he was carried along the riverbank. Occasionally he would mumble something and the small team that carried him and his stretcher would assure him they were still following the river. They passed the cave where Marie Keehn found him and started the upward climb leading to the pine forest. It wouldn’t be long and they would leave the water’s edge. They would be well inside the forest by nightfall.
Jeff Edelman would occasionally wander away from the slow moving group of C.O.s and would return, always carrying something new that he’d show the others. The conifers that Jeff found so fascinating did not register much on Andy. They didn’t really seem that much different from the ones he’d known in Illinois. But the six-inch long tooth certainly got his attention. So did the egg the size of an ostrich’s.
But no one talked much. It was as if they could barely breathe.
The volcano not too far from the prison had been apparently dormant. But on the second day they came into sight of a volcano in the distance that was sending a thin plume of gray-tinged smoke into the air. That might be a problem some day, but the potential threat was too distant in comparison to the others he faced that Andy decided it wasn’t worth worrying about.
Around noon the next day, Andy took his share of the cold rations being passed out and sighed. They couldn’t afford the time to build a fire and heat the slabs of meat, so he took a bite of the sandwich and forced himself not to make a face. Gristle and grease on rye. He then took a swig of water, immediately regretting it. The liquid, instead of washing the taste from his mouth, caused the grease to solidify, coating his tongue and teeth.
Gunshots sounded. And what he was sure were screams.
Andy dropped his sandwich to the ground and unslung his rifle. The C.O.’s all did the same. The gunfire and shrieks were coming from somewhere up ahead.
Rod Hulbert was by his side. “That doesn’t sound like people fighting off an animal. It sounds like a war.”
Andy nodded. That’s exactly what it sounded like. And from the timber of the shrieks, it also sounded like women and children were the ones being attacked.
Andy motioned for Jerry Bailey to stay with Jenny and her patient, Stephen McQuade. He then motioned for the others to follow him.
The prison team worked its way through the woods. It didn’t take them long to spot the men doing the killing. They were dressed in armor and wore helmets. A good number of them were on horseback. Several of them were shooting into the center of a village whose houses were made of downed branches and animal hides.
Eight men of the village came rushing out, naked except for loincloths and wielding nothing more than decorated clubs. They weren’t trying to attack the Spaniards, though. They were just trying to rescue two women and five children who’d been caught in the open, unable to get to the safety of their homes or the woods. The women had draped their bodies over their children in a pathetic attempt at protection.
Several Spaniards fired, but none of them hit anything. Given the matchlocks they were using, that wasn’t surprising. The Indians were a moving target—moving fast, too—and the range was at least fifty yards. Andy was pretty sure they’d only started shooting to panic their victims. They could have already killed the women and children, if they wanted to, huddled they way they were in the open. If the kids had been on their own, they might very well have been killed by now. But the instinctive protective gesture of the two women had kept them alive. The conquistadores might not want the children, but they’d want the women intact.
One of the Spaniards on a horse, wearing a fancy-looking blue coat bellowed something and the rest of them lowered their guns. He got off his horse, drew his sword, and the rest started following suit. Two of the Spaniards, it seemed, would be left behind holding the horses while the rest went into the village.
Clearly, the leader intended to save whatever ammunition they had left. Conquistadores like this, armored and armed with steel swords, would have no trouble butchering natives completely unarmored and with nothing better than clubs. All the more so, since most of the Spaniards would be veterans of Europe’s ferocious wars.
Andy did a quick count. Fifteen Spaniards. Seventeen, counting the two holding the horses. They were probably the same detachment from De Soto’s forces who’d attacked McQuade and the Indians he had been with.
He made his decision just as quickly. This wasn’t a prison uprising. This was war. There would be no negotiating and no prisoners taken. He had too many behind bars to take care of as it was. The bastards died. That simple.
He nodded at Hulbert and made a summoning motion. Rod started heading his way, moving carefully so he wouldn’t be spotted. Fortunately, there wasn’t much chance of that since the Spaniards’ attention was entirely on the village and the prison guards were well off to the side and slightly to their rear.
Brian Carmichael was right next to him. Andy leaned over and said softly: “Take ten men with you into the woods. Circle the village about two-thirds of the way around. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t wind up directly across from us, where we might get ourselves in an accidental crossfire. After we start firing, if any of those bastards try to get away, kill ‘em. We want just one prisoner, no more.” He glanced at the Spaniards approaching the village. “The one with the fancy blue coat. He’s the only one we leave standing.”
Brian nodded and took off, tapping a guard here and there as he went. Those he tapped fell in line behind him. Seconds later they were gone from sight.
By then, Hulbert was next to him. “We’ll aim for the ones with guns first. Pass it along. I’ll give the signal with my first shot. Except for that asshole in the blue coat. I want him for questioning.”
He gave Rod just enough time to pass the word down and then lifted his rifle. For a moment, he hesitated, wondering if Carmichael was in position yet.
Andy decided it didn’t matter. He couldn’t wait. The Spaniards were almost into the village. Within seconds, they’d be starting the slaughter.
He picked out his first target, the Spaniard slightly in the lead. Andy’s marksmanship wasn’t in the same league as Hulbert’s, but it didn’t need to be. Leaving aside the training he’d gotten as a prison guard, he’d been hunting deer since he was thirteen. So had probably every man with him. With modern rifles, at a range of not more than seventy yards, this was going to be every bit as much of an overmatch as the Spaniards against the Indians would have been.
Andy pulled the trigger and the man went down. Less than a second later, the rest of the guards did the same. Only two of them missed their target, and one of those managed to send a helmet flying. That was enough to stun the man who’d been wearing it and drive him to his knees.
It took the Spaniards a fatal couple of seconds to realize they were being attacked from the woods. By then, only six of the fifteen were still standing, including the leader. The man whose helmet had been shot off was not one of them. Whoever had sent the helmet flying had sent the owner’s brains after it with his second shot.
The two men holding the horses had also been shot, and the horses were scattering. The six that remained didn’t even try to get to their mounts. Instead, they bolted for the woods on the other side of the clearing. It did them no good. At Rod’s shouted command, the rest of the guards held their fire and let the marksman take them down. One. Two. Three. Four. Just about as quickly as that. Hulbert really was a fantastic shot. He would have taken down the last of his targets before the man reached the shelter of the trees, but a volley from the side swatted him like a bug.
The only one left was the leader. Whatever else the man was, he wasn’t a coward. He brandished his sword and rushed directly at the trees from which the volley had come. He was shouting something that might have been “Jesu Maria!”
Belatedly, Andy realized that he hadn’t considered the fact that he’d ordered Carmichael to capture a man still intact and armed with a sword—and who was obviously willing and able to use it.
Hulbert solved that problem. One more shot and the blue-coated conquistadore was sent sprawling. There was blood spreading across the left leg of his trousers.
Gutsy bastard, though. He started rising again, still holding the sword and snarling. But he was moving slowly now, so Hulbert’s marksmanship could really come into play. Another shot knocked the sword out of his hand and left the hand a mangled ruin.
Carmichael came out of the woods. He trotted up and bashed the Spaniard on the head with his rifle butt. The man still had his helmet on, but Carmichael was strong as an ox. Helmet or no helmet, the blow drove the man down on his belly. Unconsciously by now, probably. Close enough, anyway.
Andy stood up. His eyes searched the village but couldn’t see any signs of the inhabitants. That wasn’t surprising, of course. Given the savage nature of their rescue, you could hardly blame them for being as afraid of their rescuers as they’d been of the Spaniards. From their viewpoint, it must have been like watching a tyrannosaurus devour a smaller predator who’d been threatening them. Would you come trotting out of hiding, waving and smiling at the tyrannosaur?
Jeff Edelman and Rod Hulbert came over. “We have to go out there and get the guns,” Jeff said. “Right away.”
“What?” Hulbert blinked.
“We have to get the guns and the ammunition. They saw what the guns could do, so they’ll take them. Some of them will die, trying to figure out how to use them.”
Andy saw his point. “Besides that,” he added, “until we know more about these people, I’d just as soon they didn’t have firearms. Just because they were somebody else’s intended victims doesn’t make them sweethearts. If I remember right, the Mounds people could get pretty bloody-minded themselves. Some of them might get killed learning how to use the guns, but they’ll learn soon enough. I remember that much from Mr. Carter’s history classes. If there was one piece of European technology that everybody who ran across it learned to use right quick, it was guns. Stone age or not.”
Jeff nodded. “Yeah, that’s true.”
“What about the rest?” Rod asked. “I hate leaving them with nothing. These bastards we shot weren’t the only men De Soto has with him.”
Andy thought about it, for a second or two. “I don’t see any reason we can’t leave the rest with them. The swords, whatever other weapons there were. They’ll strip the clothing, too.”
“What about the horses?” asked Jeff. “We could use those ourselves.”
Andy looked to see where the horses had gotten to. They’d bolted away just about as rapidly as their masters had. Former masters. He could only still see one of them, and that one was at least fifty yards off.
“Yeah, we could. But how many of us are good enough riders to know how to sweet-talk a scared horse into settling down, in the first place?”
Carmichael had arrived, just in time to hear that.
“I am,” he said.
The three white officers stared at him. Carmichael clucked his tongue and grinned. “Stereotypes, stereotypes. Just ‘cause I grew up a ghetto boy in East St. Louis doesn’t mean I didn’t have cowboy daydreams. Except in my case, I kept them long enough to learn how to ride a horse. I’m pretty damn good at it, if I say so myself.”
“I’m a good horseman too,” said Hulbert. That wasn’t surprising. Hulbert was good at anything that involved survival in the wilderness. He probably knew which type of cactus provided water and which snakes and insects you could eat. There were times Andy thought the man was just a little bit nuts.
Edelman weighed in. “We should at least try, Andy. For one thing, if we don’t, the horses don’t have much chance of survival. That’d be true even if they were wild horses. There’s nothing in their evolution that’ll have prepared them for being hunted by dinosaurs.”
Carmichael scowled a little, at that. Andy knew he belonged to one of the fundamentalist churches that thought evolution was nonsense, at best. But he didn’t say anything. The immediate truth of what Jeff was saying about these horses was obvious, regardless of whatever explained it.
Andy hated to take the time to round up the horses. They had other pressing matters to attend to. Still, there was no question that horses would be very useful. In fact, without roads and with a very chancy fuel supply for the motor vehicles, horses could make the difference between survival and failure.
He looked back at the village, wondering if…
But he dismissed that idea almost at once. Whoever these Indians were, Mounds people or not, they clearly dated from some time before horses had been brought to America. They wouldn’t know how to keep the horses alive. In fact, they’d probably try to hunt them and eat them.
“Okay. Rod, you and Brian—and take whatever men you can find who have the skills—see what you can do with the horses. I’ll see if I can get the villagers to talk to us, in the meantime.”
“What about him?” asked Carmichael, jerking a thumb at the one still-living Spaniard. The conquistadore was still lying on the ground. Two of the guards were watching him, with rifles ready at hand.
“He’ll keep. I doubt if he’s even conscious yet, as hard as you belted him.”
Brian grinned again. “Hey, boss, you see what it’s like some time, having a wild man charging at you and waving a sword. Damn thing looked ten feet long. I wasn’t taking no chances.”
“I wasn’t criticizing. Just making an observation. And you’d better get going, unless you figure on tracking those horses for a week.”