TIME SPIKE – snippet 42:
At what he estimated was noon, Joe Schuler called a halt. He had to estimate based on the sun’s position, because he couldn’t use his watch. The watch was working, as were most watches. The problem was that they were skewed. His watch said it was 6:17 AM. Not surprising, really. It would be a little much to expect that a disaster that had sent them all back tens of millions of year in time would have maintained the same time of day. Someday, he supposed, if they could survive long enough to afford the luxury, they’d have to agree on a new standard.
This was a good place to stop anyway, since they’d finally come to the river Marie had instructed the nurses to follow north. If the women had made it—and all indications were that they had—then his band of a little over sixty men and women were less than a half-day’s walk from the cave Marie had sent the nurses to. Joe sat at the edge of the stream and soaked his feet in the cool water. Most of the others joined him.
Their feet were raw and bleeding. Marie and Casey were the only ones wearing shoes. They were also one of the few wearing long sleeved shirts, so they’d been spared most the misery of the sticker bushes.
When Joe first felt the cool water, his skin crawled with the cold. But that sensation left as the icy water numbed the dull, burning ache of his feet. A few more hours and they could rest. Food wasn’t going to be an option. Not tonight. But Marie had said she should be able to get enough to feed everyone at least one good meal tomorrow.
Joe thought about that, smiling ruefully. One good meal sounded good. Not so long ago, the thought of just one meal in a two-day time frame would have had him complaining to the high heavens.
He stretched back on the bank, leaving his feet in the water, and looked at the sky. A few clouds were drifting in front of the sun. He was looking forward to the shade they would give. It was the little things that mattered. So he told himself, as he closed his eyes, trying to relax. The little things: a little touch of cool, a little food, a little water to ease the pain in your shredded feet.
But he couldn’t relax. Too much anger was still seething inside him. Not anger at the prisoners. They had behaved no differently than he’d expected them to behave, given a chance. Better, actually. They hadn’t killed anyone or even raped any of the women. The only one who’d even tried had been a guard.
That stinking filthy Collins. That was the source and object of his fury.
But the anger faded. Collins was dead, after all. He’d gotten his just desserts and, best of all, had gotten them almost right after his betrayal. Certainly before he could enjoy any of the fruits he’d expected from his treason.
Mostly, Joe knew, he was just mad at life, at that thing that could throw you for a loop no matter how hard you tried.
But that was pointless, too. Collins was dead and life was what it was. Joe was in charge of this group and he needed to stay in focus.
When they’d left the prison, at his command, they’d gone away from the cave and the nurses. If they were tracked, he didn’t want to lead the prisoners to the women and the only baby on the planet. He still thought that had been the right decision, although he hadn’t anticipated the price their feet would pay for it.
One day out, and now one day back.
He sat up and pulled his feet out of the water, drying them as best he could on a handful of torn-out ground cover. He could only hope the ground cover wasn’t something like poison ivy or nettles. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t grass. Jeff Edelman said that grasses hadn’t evolved yet. Oddly enough, the plants that Joe would have assumed were the most basic and ancient were actually among the most recent.
The lack of the kind of ground cover grass usually provided would have been simply a curiosity except that, today again, they’d been forced to continue on barefoot. Without a single meadow anywhere to give their feet any relief. He’d already decided that before they went any farther than the cave, they’d have to come up with some sort of foot covering. Leaving aside the pain, they were just asking for funguses, worms, you name it. He looked at the scratches and skin tears, grimacing a little when he saw a spot on his heel that was bruised and swollen. That was going to hurt for days, every time he took a step. Maybe even weeks.
He sighed and pulled himself up. He needed to make sure everyone was all right. Some of the guards were too old for the hike they had just made. Others were too overweight. Some looked fine, but he knew they were out of shape. He planned for a one-hour rest, but then they would have to move on. He hated pushing so hard. It worried him. The memory of Greg Lowry’s heart attack was too fresh. But he didn’t feel he had any other option. He wanted to make sure they were at the cave before sunset.
He did a head count out of habit. Each time he did one he came up short and his stomach would churn. Then he would locate the missing person and he wouldn’t feel any relief. Instead, the dread would double. Dread of the time the numbers really wouldn’t be right, and the missing person wouldn’t step from behind a tree or a bush or from behind a person just large enough to hide him or her from view.
This time the missing person was Willa. He started looking around. Then he spotted her, talking to Hope McDaniel. Her face was creased into a frown. The same frown she had been wearing for over two weeks. The first time he saw her mouth turned down and her forehead creased, he had been shocked. Willa didn’t do that. She laughed and smiled. Sometimes, if she was concentrating on something, she would develop an almost blank look. But never a frown. He imagined that had changed forever, that the woman would wear this new look clear on up till the day she died.
Moving around the clearing he was once again struck by the sounds of the forest. He had always thought of cities as noisy and the country as quiet. But he’d been a country boy in the well-settled and secure Midwest of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
He knew differently now. “Quiet” was in the ear of the listener. When you were in a real no-fooling wilderness trying to spot dangerous animals, the woods were a cornucopia of never ending sounds. Constantly changing, constantly…
A slight rustling in some nearby brush drew his attention. Then, he froze. A pair of eyes was staring at him from the brush, less than ten feet away.
Dredging up the nature documentaries he had watched on TV, he tried to remember what to do when you encountered a large animal in the wild at close range.
Did you make eye contact or not? With male gorillas, you didn’t, he remembered. They’d take it as a challenge. Instead, you acted submissive.
But gorillas weren’t carnivores. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t a gorilla. Did you do the same thing with lions or bears? Did you stand your ground or run?
Stand your ground, he was pretty sure. Running would almost certainly trigger off a carnivore’s hunting reflex. Fine if you could outrun it, but he wasn’t an antelope.
What was the damn thing? From what little he could see of it through the branches, it looked like a bear, but it wasn’t any bear he was familiar with. About the size of a black bear, as near as he could determine, but it was the wrong color. The fur was grayish blonde, with a white band around the eyes, as if it were wearing spectacles.
Fear was making it hard to think. He wanted to shout a warning, but didn’t. He was afraid the noise would spook the thing, make it attack. He couldn’t shoot it, because he didn’t have a gun. They only had two guns among them. Marie always kept hers, because she was the best shot. Casey’s was passed around to whomever was standing guard at the moment. Right now, that was Frank Nickerson.
If Joe turned his head he would be able to see Frank, and if he shouted, Frank would certainly hear.
But Frank was a good thirty yards away. And a pistol, even a .40 caliber, wasn’t a rifle.
Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw Karen coming out of the bushes a little downstream. He watched as Stacey stood up. She was stretching, getting ready to walk away from the river, toward the bushes. The women had been going in and out of them, one at a time for the last ten minutes. Then Stacey spotted Joe and stopped. The way he was standing stock still must have puzzled her.
Oh, hell. Now she was moving toward him, calling out, wanting to know if something was wrong.
The animal turned toward the noise, emitting a low, soft growl. Joe could see enough to of its body to tell that it was now hunched low to the ground, as if it were getting ready to spring.
He shouted out a warning. Not a word, just a roar of sound, the only sound his brain could force his vocal cords to produce. He roared and then roared again, springing forward like a madman. Getting between the beast and the woman.
The creature charged him, rising up on its hind legs. Erect, Joe could finally see it clearly. It was a bear, sure enough, although he still didn’t know what kind. A little shorter than Joe, obviously heavier, but nothing even close to the size of a grizzly or a brown bear.
They slammed together with a thud of flesh. They grappled like wrestlers, clutching tight. The beast had Joe’s chest in a bear hug and his hands were on its throat. Whatever else, he had to keep the teeth from closing on him. The canines weren’t as huge as those of most carnivores, but those teeth would tear flesh easily.
They swayed. Twisted. Back and forth. He could hear Stacey and Karen screaming for help, but didn’t pay them any attention at all.
He couldn’t. God, the thing was strong! Joe could feel the air being squeezed from his lungs. Suddenly, the bear roared and drew back its paws, then smashed them into Joe’s torso. He though he felt some ribs go. One, at least.
He staggered, but he didn’t let go of the throat. The gaping maw was what terrified him. The bear roared and slammed him again, with that double blow. Then went back to the bear hug.
They tumbled to the ground. Joe shifted his grip, searching for a hold that would let him strangle the creature, not just hold off the teeth. He dug his fingers through the creature’s fur, feeling the beast’s hot breath on his face, arching his neck to stay away from the jaws.
He was desperate now. His vision was blurring. He’d been hurt badly by those blows, and knew it. He only had a few seconds before his strength would go, and he couldn’t for the life of him find anything under the thick fur and muscle that he thought would do any good to squeeze.
Up close, the sound of the pistol going off was like a cannon shot. The full weight of the animal pressed against him, knocking what little breath there was in his lungs from his body.
Then the beast was gone, hauled off. Cool air covered him and he could almost breathe. When his vision cleared, he saw Frank Nickerson leaning over, deep concern on his face.
Like an idiot, macho reflexes took over. “Yeah, sure,” he gruffed, extending a hand. “Help me up.”
But when Frank started pulling him up, he screamed. It felt like knives were being driven through his chest.
Hastily, Frank let go of his hand and Joe collapsed back onto the ground. That impact sent the same knives through him, and he screamed again.
He saw Marie’s face now, also full of concern. Dizzy with pain, he tried to smile. He couldn’t. He had to cough. When he did, he cried out in pain and sprayed blood onto the hand he had used to cover his mouth. Not much. Just a little.
Marie knelt next to him, looked at the blood, and squeezed his shoulder.
“It’ll be okay,” she said. “It’ll be okay. Just take it easy.”
Joe thought about telling her to close her eyes the next time she lied, but was hit with another wave of pain and dizziness. When the wave peaked, he passed out.