(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.
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 before pulling back. I clenched my fist and waited to see if it would wither and fall off. It didn’t and other than the faintest tingles, I felt nothing.
I was sorely tempted to go through and see what awaited me on the other side. But the light was fading and the shadows growing longer, and I didn’t feel safe wandering through such a strange place in the dark. Running my fingers across the shimmer once more, I reluctantly turned away.
Mounting Carbine, we rode away from the tracks and cliff for over a mile, before finding a small stand of trees that would provide some shelter and concealment from any critters prone to violence that might be wandering around.
Staking my horse nearby, I trusted him to alert me if anything came near. I spread my bedroll amongst some fallen logs and stacked a few rocks in the gaps for additional cover. Just in case. Lying under my wool blanket, I looked through the leaves at the rapidly darkening sky. I 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. I settled on the unknown. The unknown is scary when your imagination runs wild. I kept my rifle close and slept 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 to have a horse who could occasionally work a slip knot free. After I shoved his head away, he looked me in the eye, lifted his tail and pooped. Cursing the day that 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. I missed Elsa. She’d been a good horse and lacked a single mischievous bone in her sweet body.
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.
By the time we reached the cliff face, the sun had risen enough to burn off the low-lying mist. Looking around, everything appeared just as weird today as it did yesterday.
I tied Carbine’s reins to a small pine tree beside the tunnel, this time making sure they were sufficiently tight and difficult for him to pull loose. Making sure nothing had changed overnight, 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 my rifle from its scabbard and checked the chamber to make sure it was loaded. Scratching his withers, I opened a saddle bag and took out a brass collapsible telescope to tuck under my arm. My horse snorted softly as if to wish me luck. Holding the weapon tight, I gathered my courage, closed my eyes, and blindly stepped across the invisible line.
A tingle ran through 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 had gripped me so tightly before, 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 walked forward to the small rise that had limited my vision of this side. I stood at its peak where the ground sloped down away from me, exposing a grand view.
Before me lay rolling hills that rose and dipped sharply as they dropped into a valley. A wide river meandered lazily through the center of it. To the right, the grassy plains gave way to a thick forest of giant trees arching a couple hundred feet into the air. Green and red-tinged ferns dotted the landscape mixed amongst knee-high, thick bladed grasses and small stands of thin, scraggly trees.
My surroundings were strange, but it was the creatures that captivated my attention. They were large enough that I didn’t need the telescope, but I extended it for a better look and knelt in the grass. Bracing the optic on a knee, I surveyed the bottom of the valley and the strange animals.
A herd 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 pair of the small long-necked animals chased each other between the adults’ legs, 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 walked on short legs, with exposed bone plating across their backs. Their side-to-side gait reminded me of turtles. The bone clubs formed in a large knot on the end of their tails swung back and forth in rhythm with their step as they moved along the valley floor.
I reckoned these were the sorts of strange animals that were called Dinosaurs. I swallowed hard. How could such a place as this exist?
An ear-piercing screech came from above as a bird 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.
Behind me, the limestone cliff rose high into the air. It appeared to be a normal mountain range, except for the tunnel. Looking back through the opening, I could see the back half of Carbine peeking out from the rock side and the grassy plains beyond. The strange opening was like a window you could walk through.
The tracks of the apes were vague in the grass, but the beasts were clear as they moved away from the cliff and 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 while they were still visible.
Pulling myself away from the strange view, I crossed back through the tunnel that apparently divided two worlds. With some gentle coaxing and a few threats muttered under my breath, I managed to persuade Carbine to enter the tunnel. After seeing the shimmer from myself as I stepped through, he hesitated in the center of the tunnel in front of the sudden divide. He stomped his hooves and looked around the tunnel suspiciously. I let the reins go slack, and when he cautiously pushed his muzzle towards me, I gave him a yank. When the shimmer hit his nose, he leapt forward so quickly I stumbled backwards and fell on the rocky dirt of the tunnel. Once across, he snorted and stamped, pushing forward to the other side with ears pricked forward as he took in the unfamiliar smells and noises.
Stepping into the stirrups, I pulled myself up and rested my 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.
The tracks led us across the steep dips and rises of the sloping valley and into the towering dark forest.
We worked our way through the thick underbrush amongst the tall trees. At first, I peered carefully into the trees above me, expecting the giant monkeys to drop on me at any moment and beat me to death with their big hands and clubs. But the ape tracks stayed on the ground, following the beast as it smashed through the under growth and churned the 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 apes foot prints met the beasts. The apes’ tracks were all around the area, as if they had spent some time looking at the monsters tracks before following it.
Leaning down on Carbine, I studied the muddled markings on the ground until I found the trail of large monkey foot prints that went further into the forest. It seemed foolish to keep following them, 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 would 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. Everything seemed large and lethal. Even the insects were frighteningly big. Overhead we heard the sharp shrieks of leathery birds winging above us, and distant bellows and screams of strange unknown creatures. Several times we stopped, listening, as something large and unseen crashed through the forest nearby.
Small, furry brown animals with long noses and black tails skittered over the raised roots and through fallen leaves as we plodded along the ape’s tracks. They were everywhere. I bet all the carnivores 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 in my barn with stone age weapons. But 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 and rotting trees, we paused well away from the openings edge. I took a sip of water and looked around for anything that might try to eat us. Other than the small rodents scurrying about in the clearing, it appeared safe for the moment.
The group of apes I followed appeared to have circled around the opening. I turned Carbine’s head to walk him around the edge.
We made it several paces before piercing bird calls reached our ears followed by the loud crashing noise of multiple somethings approaching. The rodents scampered away, ducking into small holes and leaving the clearing empty.
As the bird calls grew louder, we rode deeper into the thick underbrush, stopping before I lost sight of the clearing. The rapidly approaching sound of snapping branches and rustling leaves 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 around thick ferns and leaping over fallen logs, they charged nimbly through the open clearing.
The birds were larger than any I had ever seen. Their mottled tan and brown feathers covered everything except their feet. They had thick bodies, 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, jutted out from 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 creatures ran leaning forward. Its head was massive and looked as though it could gulp down a man with little effort. A long thick tail balanced the oversized head as it ran with earth-shaking stomps. Its hide was a light green, with thin black stripes running from its back down its sides and stopping before the pale-yellow underbelly. The goofy small arms clawing helplessly in front of its massive body 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 the dirt.
Carbine understandably lost his shit.
He snorted and reared, kicking and bucking as I simultaneously struggled to prevent him from bolting 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, huge 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 began to fade away.
I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath, and let it out in a big whoosh as my heart hammered in my chest. Carbine was still panicked, foam dripping from his muzzle and eyes rolling as he searched for more danger and I rubbed his neck and tried to calm him with soothing words.
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 slow and carefully, continuing to back track the long strides of the beast and the following group of apes.
Everything here was monstrous and dangerous. And heaven help us all if that absurdly big-headed dinosaur crossed to our side. I don’t know how we could stop something that big without a barrage of cannon fire.
The temperature was rising fast as the sun rose, and there was so much moisture in the air I felt like I could swim in it. My shirt was soaked through, and beaded sweat poured down my face. We stopped at a stream, and I let Carbine drink his fill while I topped off my canteen. The water was a little brackish, but seemed normal enough.
I should have turned around then, but I kept pushing. I’m stubborn like that.
A quarter mile past that, we came across a corpse. Whatever it was, it was chewed and gnawed on past the point of recognition. It had been a big animal though, but all that was left was large bones covered with small amounts of stinking, rotting flesh. As we approached, small green creatures with long tails bounced away and through the brush before I could get a good look at them.
We skirted around the dead animal and fifteen minutes later, reached where the forest merged into rolling grass covered hills and dotted with several canyons. As we reached the edge of the trees and ferns, I jerked back on Carbine’s reins to bring him to a quick stop before stepping out into the open.
This strange place was full of constant surprises.
Several hundred yards away, a pair of apes rode giant three-horned beasts along 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 large black horns jutting out from above their eyes and a smaller one was centered above flared nostrils and a beaked mouth. A scooped shield rose behind the top horns, covering the back of its neck, with small rounded 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.
With an obvious lack of creativity, I decided to name them trikes due to their three horns.
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. Leather reins wrapped around the muzzle with a bit between the beast’s jaws, circling back to either side of the shield and held firmly in one hand by the ape. In the other hand, the apes held bows, with quivers of the same yellow-green fletched arrows and stone axes hanging from the saddle. On the sides of the trikes, strapped above large leather sacks, were several of their long spears bundled together.
Staying in the darkened shadows of the forest interior, I watched the trikes lumber down the hill, along the forest, and wade through a shallow river into a nearby canyon. With the glass, I looked around the narrow entrance to the gorge, the ground was beaten down and churned into a thick mud and plastered grass. A lot of somethings had been going in and out of there.
This had to be the apes camp.
The forest circled along to my right for a half mile before reaching the canyon edge. I had to see what was in there. Clicking my tongue, I turned Carbine away from the grassy plains and deeper into the trees. We cut through the trees towards the highest place in the forest near the canyon. I wanted the best vantage point for seeing into the gorge with plenty of concealment to stay hidden in.
As we grew closer to the canyon, I saw thin tendrils of smoke rising from inside and twisting above the trees. Stopping my horse, I took my rifle and telescope, tied Carbine’s reins to a tree, and stalked forward cautiously.
On hands and knees, I crawled to the canyon edge. The sun was at its pinnacle now, and the heat reflected off the rock. Sweat poured from my face and practically sizzled on the 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, dotted with giant ferns and scattered stands of tall, thick 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 chock 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 on the base of the cliff face opposite of me. Groups of apes sat around small fires, eating, crafting weapons, while others practiced shooting bows and throwing spears at large bundles of tightly bound ferns. I watched a large, completely white ape bound forward several steps and hurl a spear over a hundred yards before burying half its length into a target. Apart from the others, a large group of the big monkey-men were around great big slabs of meat, hacking them into thin strips and smoking them over smoldering fires.
They all wore hides and skins wrapped around their waist or across their shoulder down.
Except for the ones fighting naked.
Dozens of them wrestled with each other in the grass and shallow streams. Picking each other up and slamming them down as they scrambled to get the advantage on the other. I saw one rise from beneath the water he’d been pushed into with a handful of muck and fling it at the face of another ape before tackling him around the waist. I could hear the loud bellows and guttural calls to each other from my perch high on the cliff edge.
Fighting appeared to be a way of life for these big monkeys.
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. His head swiveled back and forth as he watched over the herd. Through my telescope, I could tell one of his horns was shattered halfway up its length. Large scars crossed his muscular body.
And then there were carts. 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, I assumed they designed 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.
It was a lot to take in.
But it was the unnatural rock formation in the center of the canyon 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 high in a large circle. At their center lay a massive 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 in the middle of the canyon floor.
If it was an altar, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the sort of rituals these hairy savages held.