TIME SPIKE – snippet 29:



Chapter 22



            Geoffrey Watkins studied the giant lizard-birds working their way across the clearing toward the rudimentary village the Cherokees had put together. He estimated they weighed about what a horse did, and they were about the same height. Their bodies were longer, though, with a very heavy and stiff-looking tail. The biggest difference was that, like birds, they moved on two legs instead of four. Their hind legs were hugely muscled, much bigger than the forelimbs, and ended in bird-like feet with three talons. But one of those talons, unlike any bird Watkins had ever seen, was enlarged and cocked back and out of the way while the creature walked.

            Their heads swung from side to side and their tongues darted in and out of their mouths, as though they were tasting the air. And even from this distance, he knew their mouths were filled with teeth that made the teeth of two-hundred pound gars seem as nothing. Everything about them shrieked predator.

            To make things worse, predators that were also like wolves. Pack hunters. The six creatures moved together, obviously hunting as a team.

            He watched them, more fascinated than horrified. He’d dealt with dangerous animals since he was a boy. He figured they could deal with these also.

            The animals had been spotted ten minutes before. Luckily, Scott’s eight-year-old son had been exploring away from the village and had spotted them at a distance. Still more luckily, the beasts hadn’t spotted the boy. He’d been able to get back and give the warning in plenty of time.

            By now, clearly, the bird-lizard hunters were already honed in on the village. By smell, he assumed. They’d slowed down quite a bit, and were picking their way across the clearing, trying to spot their prey.

            Unless they had the eyesight of eagles—which was always possible, of course, but Watkins didn’t think that was likely with land animals—they wouldn’t be able to see the humans yet. Everyone except the warriors and the soldiers was hiding in the log huts, and the armed men were positioned for ambush. Still, Watkins was wary. He simply wasn’t familiar enough with these monsters to know what their capabilities were. He’d have felt a lot better if they were giant bears or wolves or cougars.

            “Chief,” Bradley Scott whispered. “We’re ready. Sergeant Kershner says the soldiers are ready too.”

            From somewhere south of them an animal bellowed. None of the people inside the camp recognized the beast making the sound. The six lizard-birds hesitated, and then became agitated. They sniffed the air and turned this way and that, using small hopping motions. For a few seconds, Watkins hoped they might get attracted by other prey. But, after a while, they resumed their careful stalking of the village ahead of them.

            The Cherokee chief was glad now that he’d instructed his warriors not to try for head shots. The way the creatures’ heads bobbed and swayed as they moved would make them very difficult to hit. Ammunition was getting scarce, but time was even scarcer. To fire and miss, would mean taking time to reload. Even for a man good with a musket, or a well-trained soldier, that took at least a third of a minute. And while the creatures were moving slowly now, everything about the way their bodies were designed made it obvious that they could run very quickly when they wanted to.

            The soldiers, with their better muskets, had agreed to fire first. Watkins and Scott and their fourteen warriors would hold their fire until they saw what effect the soldiers’ guns had on the monsters. They’d divided themselves into two groups of eight men each. Scott’s men would fire after the soldiers, and Watkins’ group would be the final reserve. If these things were like most reptiles, they wouldn’t die easily.

            The soldiers were either very brave or very well-trained. Maybe both, but Geoffrey suspected it was their training. Sergeant Kershner was a stern disciplinarian, when he felt it necessary. Whatever the reason, they waited until the lizard-birds were thirty yards from where they were hidden before they fired their volley.

            Kershner, Geoffrey realized at once, must have come to the same conclusion that Watkins had. They hadn’t had enough time to develop any detailed plans beyond the rough division of forces. The U.S. sergeant had obviously ordered his men to aim at only the leading two of the six monsters. Probably worried that if they spread their fire they wouldn’t hurt any of them enough to matter.

            Those two creatures went down, as if they’d been pole-axed. The soldiers were all armed with muskets made at the Harpers Ferry Armory. As big and dangerous-looking as the bird-lizards were, each of them had been struck by at least three .69-caliber bullets.

            That still left four, completely unharmed. The beasts had scattered at the loud and unexpected noise, but they were already coming back. And now, unfortunately, they weren’t bunched in a group.

            “Aim for the one on the far left!” Scott shouted. That was also the nearest one to his group, about fifty yards away. “And don’t shoot until—”

            But three of the warriors had already fired before he got halfway through the command. Even when the Cherokees fought as allies with the Americans, which they often did, they fought as skirmishers. They weren’t trained or accustomed to firing in volleys.

            Only one of the bullets hit, so far as Watkins could tell. Not surprising, at that range. The targeted monster screeched and jerked around, slashing with its teeth at nothing.

            The bullet had struck the tail, not far behind the hip. Geoffrey realized the creature must have thought it was being attacked from the rear. It suddenly dawned on him that the lizard-birds were under the same handicap he and his people were. They didn’t know the capabilities of humans any more than humans knew theirs. This would be the first time they’d ever encountered gunfire—and as nasty as those heads looked, they also didn’t look as if there was too much room for brains in them either.

            Bradley must had come to the same conclusion. There was no point in waiting until the monsters got closer, because they were now just milling around. Agitated and confused, smelling blood and knowing some of them had been attacked, but not knowing from where or by what.

            “All right, shoot at him again!”

            The other five muskets went off. At least one of the bullets struck something vital. The monster twisted, screeching, twisted back—lashing out now with that ferocious-looking huge claw, again at nothing—and then staggered and fell. When it hit the ground, it kept writhing and lashing out with the claw.

            That was enough. These were predators, not fanatics or soldiers trained to fight to the death. Even the most ferocious predators avoided dangerous prey. They went for the weak or lame or young, and ran if they encountered anything that looked like it might put up enough of a fight to kill or injure them.

            The three survivors took off at a run, heading for the other side of the clearing. Their speed was frightening. If they’d known enough to charge the soldiers after they fired, they’d have been upon them long before the soldiers could possibly have reloaded. Watkins would remember that.

            Belatedly, he realized he was forgetting something even more important. The best defense humans ever had against predators was the knowledge those predators gained that humans were prey to be avoided. And these monsters still had no idea what had happened to them.

            Cursing his years and the creakiness of his joints, he lunged into the clearing, waving his arms and shouting as loudly as he could. A few seconds later, Scott and several other Cherokees joined him.

            Maybe one of the monsters looked back. He wasn’t sure.