(Don’t worry, we’ll get to the Gatling Guns eventually!)
The previous story portions:
The saga of blazing guns, ferocious dinosaurs, and hairy barbaric savagery continues with Part Four.
Unsure of what I was seeing, I did what everyone does when confronted with something so strange and bizarre that it challenges your belief in what is real.
I poked it with my finger.
Like before, small ripples spread outwards, sparkling like clear water in the sun, before quickly fading away. I pushed my hand through and watched the ripple, flexing my fingers and watching them through the brief shimmer. I clenched my fist and waited a minute to see if it would wither and fall off. It didn’t and other than the faintest of tingles, I felt nothing.
I was sorely tempted to go through and see what awaited me on the other side. But light was fading and shadows growing longer, and I didn’t feel safe wandering through such a strange place in the dark. Running my fingers across the air to make a trail of shimmers once more, I reluctantly turned away.
We rode away from the tracks and cliff for over a mile, before finding a small stand of trees that would provide shelter and concealment from any critters prone to violence that might be wandering around. Especially anything that may have come through the tunnel.
Staking Carbine nearby, I trusted him to alert me if anything came near. My bedroll was spread amongst some fallen logs that formed a natural fort of sorts and I stacked a few large rocks in the gaps. Just in case. Lying under a wool blanket, I looked through the leaves at the rapidly darkening sky and tried to decide which was worse, the creatures I’d encountered, or the things on the other side that I didn’t know about yet. Before I drifted off to sleep, I settled on the unknown and kept my rifle close by my side while sleeping fitfully through the night.
The next morning, I woke to the Carbine nudging me with his muzzle and stamping his hooves impatiently. It was annoying having a horse that could occasionally work a slip knot free. But at least he didn’t leave me stranded. After I shoved his head away, he looked me in the eye, lifted his tail and let loose with a load of manure. Cursing the day he was born, I pulled my blanket and slicker aside before any droppings rolled onto it. Somehow, our morning routine always seemed to begin with me swearing at him. This wasn’t the first time that I missed Elsa. She’d been a good horse and lacked a single mischievous bone in her sweet body. Stupid monster.
I broke down my simple camp by rolling up the bedding, letting Carbine drink his fill from a small nearby stream, and cinching the saddle tight on his back. I was anxious to begin exploring the other side, and since I didn’t pack any coffee, I skipped a fire and ate a few hardtack biscuits for breakfast. Without my caffeine, I’d just be a little more ornery than usual. Dinosaurs and apes beware.
By the time we reached the cliff face, the sun had risen enough to burn off the low-lying mist. As best as I could tell, everything appeared to be just as weird today as it did yesterday. Except there were more tracks, from what looked like a dozen or more four legged creatures with small hooves. Whatever they were, they appeared to be heading east, probably to kill more of my cattle. I decided to follow them later, but for now, I wanted to see what the other side held.
I tied Carbine’s reins to a small pine tree beside the tunnel, this time making sure they were sufficiently tight. Then I slipped my hand into the mysterious opening again. It rippled as before, and like last time, there was only a barely noticeable tingle.
Satisfied I probably wouldn’t die crossing through the strange shimmer, I drew my hand back. It was time to see what this mysterious other side was all about.
Walking back to Carbine, I pulled the rifle from its scabbard. Scratching his withers, I opened a saddle bag and took out a collapsible brass telescope to tuck under my arm. He snorted softly as if to wish me luck. Holding the Sharps repeater tight, I gathered my courage, closed my eyes, and blindly stepped across the invisible line.
A tingle ran over my entire body, I cracked my eyes open a sliver and saw I was still alive. Now that I was on the other side, I tried to shake lose the fear of the unknown that gripped me so tightly last night, but the feeling lingered. This was unfamiliar territory. The sort of place that defied the laws of everything I knew possible. It was downright scary.
I stepped through the tunnel and looked up, the limestone cliff rose high into the air around me. It appeared to be a normal mountain range, except for the short tunnel leading back to my side. Looking back through the opening, I could see the back half of Carbine peeking out from the rock side and the grassy plains beyond.
Carefully, I stalked forward to the small rise that had limited my vision of this side. Once I reached its peak, I stopped in shock. Whatever I expected to find, this surpassed my imagination.
Before me lay hills that rose and dipped sharply as they dropped into a large valley with a wide river running lazily through the bottom of it. To the right, the open grassy hills gave way to a forest of giant trees arching over a hundred feet into the air. More of the green and red-tinged ferns dotted the landscape mixed amongst knee-high, thick bladed grasses and small stands of trees.
My surroundings were strange, but all that was over shadowed by the creatures below. They were large enough that I didn’t need the telescope, but I extended it for a better look. Kneeling, I braced the optic against a knee and surveyed the strange animals.
A small group of massive gray beasts walked ponderously along the banks of the river. Some were thirty feet tall, with thick bodies on stumpy legs, and long graceful necks curving up into the sky, their small heads plucking at leaves on the trees growing in the edges of the river. A young pair, perhaps six or seven feet tall, chased each other around the adults, running and nipping at each other with a gracefulness I wouldn’t have thought possible in such strangely formed beasts.
A pair of vastly different animals emerged from the forest edge. Their wide, thick bodies moved on short legs, with exposed bone plating across their backs. Their side-to-side gait reminded me of turtles. A large knot was formed on the end of their tails, and swung back and forth in rhythm with their step as they moved along the valley floor. If the club on the end of their tail was used for defensive means, it’d smash a man flat.
I reckoned these were all supposedly extinct dinosaurs. I swallowed hard. How could such a place as this exist?
An ear-piercing screech came from above as a bird, or lizard perhaps, without feathers swooped over the valley. It had a small thin body, sleek, with a long neck and toothed beak, and was carried aloft by wide, leathery wings tipped with talons. It skimmed low over the water, before alighting beside more of its kind in a tree by the long-necks. They squawked and screeched at each other and the dinosaurs nearby.
The tracks of the apes were vague in the grass, but the beasts were clear as they moved towards the forest edge. I’d originally planned on just taking a quick peek. But curiosity got the best of me and I decided to keep following the tracks.
Pulling myself away from the strange view, I crossed back through the tunnel that divided two worlds. With some gentle coaxing and a few threats, I persuaded Carbine to enter the tunnel. After seeing the shimmer as I stepped through, he hesitated and looked around suspiciously. I let the reins go slack, and when he cautiously pushed his muzzle towards me, I gave them a yank. When the shimmer hit his nose, he leapt forward so quickly I had to jump aside or be trampled. But once through, he quickly moved out of the tunnel with ears pricked forward as he took in the unfamiliar smells and noises.
After a few minutes to let him get settled in our new surroundings, I pulled myself up and rested the rifle across the pommel of the saddle. We were in a strange land filled with strange beasts. I wanted to be ready for anything that might need shooting while we tucked tail and ran away.
Then we followed the tracks into the forest.
We worked our way through the underbrush amongst the tall trees, following the beasts old trail as it smashed through under growth and churned ground with its claws.
Fifty feet into the forest, the thick growth began to thin, making it easier to move without the threat of being knocked out of the saddle by a low-lying branch or flayed open by the large thorns that jutted out from thick vines drooping from the trees.
After a hundred yards or so, I discovered a jumble of tracks where the ape’s footprints joined the beasts. The apes’ tracks were packed on top of each other, as if they’d walked around looking at the monsters prints before deciding to follow it.
Here I left the dinosaurs tracks behind and followed where the apes veered off. It seemed foolish to keep going, but after coming this far, the urge to see where the big monkeys came from was overpowering. We pressed on, but I promised myself that I’d only follow for another hour or so before turning back.
Carbine was skittish, his ears flicking back and forth as he tried to absorb our strange surroundings. I couldn’t blame him. This place was making me nervous too. Overhead came sharp shrieks of leathery birds winging above us, and echoing through the forest were distant bellows and screams of unknown creatures. Several times we stopped, listening, as something large and unseen crashed through the brush nearby.
Small, furry brown animals with long noses and black tails skittered over raised roots and through fallen leaves as we plodded along the ape’s tracks. They were everywhere. I bet all the predators munched on them like candy. At first, Carbine didn’t like them underfoot, but after a while he ignored them. From the noises I heard, I’m confident he squished several under his steel shod hooves.
The apes’ tracks broke apart, and came back together as they spread out and moved through the forest. It was apparent they were searching for something, and I shuddered to think that they chased after the monster from my barn with only stone age weapons. Tracking them was slow going, the only thing that helped was that there was four of them leaving sign.
Reaching a large clearing of tall grass, sparse ferns and several fallen trees, we paused well away from the openings edge. I took a sip of water from my canteen and watched for anything that might eat us. Other than the small rodents scurrying about in the clearing, it appeared safe for the moment. But the group of apes I followed appeared to have circled around the opening, which was a good idea to me as well. I turned Carbine’s head to walk him around the edge.
We made it several steps before piercing bird calls reached our ears followed by loud crashing noise of multiple somethings approaching. The rodents scampered away, ducking into small holes.
As the bird calls grew louder, we rode deeper into the thick underbrush, stopping before I lost sight of the clearing through the vegetation. The rapidly approaching sound of snapping branches and rustling leaves filled the forest and made Carbine side-step and tug at the reins uncomfortably. I shushed him and held the reins tight, hoping he wouldn’t draw any unwanted attention.
A flock of gigantic birds burst out of the trees. Dodging thick ferns and leaping over fallen logs, they charged nimbly through the clearing.
The birds were larger than any I’d ever seen. They had thick bodies covered in tan and brown feathers, with a small head on an outstretched neck, and ran in bounds on long legs. The squawks came from toothed beaks below small beady eyes, and their wings, too small to offer flight, stuck uot on each side to give them balance.
Behind them, the forest exploded in a shower of branches and leaves as an enormous two-legged monstrosity broke through the foliage after them.
It made the beast I killed pale in comparison.
A good fourteen feet tall and probably twenty-five feet long, the giant dinosaur ran leaning forward on thick muscular legs balanced with a long tail held low. Its head was massive and looked as though it could gulp down a man with little effort. The leathery hide was a light green, with thin black stripes running down its sides and stopping before the pale-yellow underbelly. The small arms clawing helplessly in the air did little to take away from its fearsome appearance.
It looked like the dinosaur that Sheriff Dan had described. And it certainly wasn’t a bunch of old bones buried in dirt.
Carbine understandably lost his shit.
He snorted and reared, kicking and bucking as I simultaneously struggled to prevent him from fleeing and wondering if we should be.
Luckily for us, the monster was fixated on the fleeing birds and ran after them, oblivious to my fight against Carbine’s survival instincts.
The big-headed beast lunged, mouth stretched wide, its teeth snapping shut on empty air as one of the birds nimbly leaped to the side. The birds screeched and left the clearing, ducking amongst the low branches of the forest. Mere steps behind them, the giant dinosaur bashed through the screen of trees with a swing of its head. A rotten tree snapped off at the base and toppled to the side, crushing vegetation beneath it. Within moments, the chase was out of sight, and the noise of the chase beginning to fade away.
Realizing I was holding my breath, I let it out in a big whoosh as my pounding heart began to slow. Carbine was still panicked, foam dripping from his muzzle and eyes rolling as he searched for more danger. I rubbed his neck and with soothing words, began to calm him.
Everything here was monstrous and dangerous. And heaven help us all if that absurdly big predator crossed to our side. I don’t know how we could stop something that big without a barrage of cannon fire.
Dismounting, I poured water from my canteen into my hat with trembling hands. That monster really did a number on me, and the memories of the smaller beast I killed was all to fresh. My horse drank noisily, sloshing water onto my pants and the ground. I let him rest for a few moments, running my hands down his neck and shoulders while waiting for the tremble of adrenaline and fear to subside in both of us.
When we moved out, we went more slowly and carefully than before, continuing to back track the long strides of the apes. Pure stubbornness and curiosity on my part kept me pushing forward instead of returning the way we came. I promised myself another hour, then we’d turn back.
The temperature had risen with the sun, and there was so much moisture in the air I felt like I could swim in it. My shirt was soaked through and sweat rolled down my face. We stopped at a stream, and I let Carbine drink his fill while I topped off my canteen. The water was brackish, but tasted normal enough to risk drinking.
A quarter mile past that, we came across a rotting corpse. As we approached, small green dinosaurs with long tails bounced away through the brush before I could get a good look at them. Whatever it had been, it was chewed and gnawed on past the point of recognition. It had been a big animal though, something with four legs and large flat bones sticking from its back, but all that was left were small amounts of decaying, rotting flesh on the bones. The scent was nauseating.
We skirted around the dead animal and fifteen minutes later, reached where the forest turned into more rolling grass covered hills and what looked like the entrance to a large canyon.
I jerked back on Carbine’s reins to bring him to a quick stop before we stepped into the open.
This strange place was full of surprises.
Several hundred yards away, a pair of apes rode giant three-horned beasts over the crest of a grassy knoll.
I pulled the telescope from my saddle bag, and extended it to study the strange horned mounts in detail. They had short legs under thick bodies, with two long black horns jutting out from above their eyes and a smaller one centered above slanted nostrils and a beaked mouth. A scooped shield rose behind its skull, covering the back of the neck, with small round bone protrusions sticking out of the top. The animals were a darkened brown that merged into a tan on their underbelly, with yellow stripes running from nose to shield and across their bodies horizontally.
With an obvious lack of creativity, the first name that came to mind was trikes.
Mounted behind the bone shield, on the trikes’ front shoulders, were the apes. They used an odd form of saddle, with their feet tucked underneath the scooped shield. The reins held by the apes, circled around the sides of the shield, before meeting a harness that looked eerily like my horse’s. The first loop ran around the beak and lower horn and attached to a second loop that ran from the throat to behind the larger horns. There was no bit used, the creature’s beak didn’t look like one would fit.
The apes held bows, with full quivers of yellow-green fletched arrows and stone axes hanging from the saddle. On the sides of the trikes, strapped above large leather sacks, were several long spears bundled together.
Staying in the darkened shadows of the forest interior, I watched the trikes lumber down the hill and wade through a shallow river into a nearby canyon. With the glass, I looked around the narrow entrance, all along the river the ground was churned into a thick mud and the grass plastered flat. A lot of somethings were going in and out of there.
The forest circled along to my right for a half mile before reaching the canyon edge and I had to see what was in there. Clicking my tongue, I turned Carbine and we skirted along the forest edge. I wanted the best vantage point for seeing into the gorge.
As we grew closer to the canyon, I saw thin tendrils of smoke rising from inside and twisting above the trees. Figuring this was close enough, I took my rifle and telescope, tied Carbine’s reins to a tree, and stalked forward on foot.
When I felt close enough I dropped and crawled to the canyon edge. The sun was at its pinnacle now. The scorching heat reflected off the exposed rock beneath me. Sweat dripped from my face and practically sizzled on stone as I peered over the edge.
It was a box canyon and much larger than I expected, a half mile across at the widest point and a mile long from the only entrance to a distant cliff face where a large waterfall toppled over to the canyon floor. The ground was covered with a lush green grass and giant ferns with scattered stands of trees. The river slowly twisted around the base of the cliff where I lay, gently flowing through large pools and out the canyon entrance. It was a beautiful and isolated place.
It was also full of apes.
There were over a hundred of the big monkeys scattered across the canyon floor, with many more moving in and out of cave openings in the cliff face opposite of me. Groups of apes sat around fires, eating and crafting weapons, while others practiced shooting bows and throwing spears at large bundles of tightly bound dried ferns. A large, completely white ape bounded forward several steps and hurled a spear over a hundred yards before burying half its length into one of the bundles. Apart from the others, a large group of monkeys were swarming over great big slabs of meat, hacking them into thin strips and smoking them over smoldering fires. There didn’t seem to be a difference between the work the females and males did, they were mixed amongst all the tasks, including hurling spears.
They all wore hides and skins wrapped around their waist or over a shoulder.
Except for the ones fighting naked.
Dozens of them wrestled with each other in the grass beside the shallow streams below me. Picking each other up and slamming them down as they scrambled to get the advantage. I watched one rise from beneath the water he’d been pushed into with a handful of muck and fling it at the face of another before tackling him around the waist. Loud bellows and guttural calls to echoed up to my perch high on the cliff edge.
A large herd of trikes was further down the canyon, tearing up plants and chewing the vegetation. They appeared docile, as several apes moved amongst them. Overlooking the herd on a small rise nearby, nestled amongst the tall grass, lay a monster of a trike. I noticed him only because his head swiveled back and forth as he watched over his herd. Through my telescope, I could tell one of his horns was shattered halfway up its length.
And then there were carts.
Several dozens of them with rough shaped chunks of wood for wheels and two thick poles jutting out the front. None of them had harnesses attached, and from the design and size, they appeared to be pulled by a single ape. They were strewn across the valley floor, some filled with ferns for the trikes, others with logs and sticks, stacked hides, even stones. Many of them were staged in rough rows near the back of the canyon, tall grasses and ferns growing over them.
It was a lot to take in.
Battle seemed to be a way of life for these apes. While the ratio of females to males appeared almost even, it was worrisome that I saw no baby or juvenile apes amongst them. And the number of carts showed the apes moved a lot. There were far more than needed for simple tasks in the canyon.
But of everything in the canyon, it was the unnatural rock formation in the center that disturbed me the most.
At least a dozen chunks of granite had been worked into a rectangular shape and stood upright, a dozen feet tall, in a large circle. In their center lay a large chunk of glossy black obsidian raised high on a stone platform. The volcanic glass was at least ten feet long and five feet wide. The light of the sun shone darkly off the rock, giving it an ominous appearance.
If it was an altar, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what sort of rituals the hairy savages held.