A Time to Reflect

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Even as he struck the first carnosaur with his makeshift club, Tony felt the air around them waver, sparkle.  The ground became tenuous and then absent and they were swirling in a vortex of colors-- cold and whispery that told them they were on their way to some other place, time and danger.  Let it be cooler, drier, safer.  Tony mentally laughed.  Probably Antarctica, which was certainly cooler and drier.  But safer?  Ha!  Nothing they had done or seen was safer.  The Titanic, the Battle of New Orleans, Arthurian England, Jericho, communist Russia, Nazi Germany, WWI Italy, Troy, Krakatoa, the Alamo, Little Big Horn.  The pictures swirled and coalesced like the air and view around him.  He was falling and rolling, twirling and tumbling.  His mind was alternately on fire or freezing.  He closed his eyes and still he saw the vortex around him.  Where would it be this time?  Again he laughed.  Time—a blessing and a curse.  Some people would give all they possessed to see some of the sights he and Doug had seen, but right now, he would give his right arm for home.  Or a week or two of tranquility even if it was away from home.  

Then Tony was falling to the earth, feeling the solidity of everything around him.  He tried to tuck himself into a ball to roll when he hit the ground.  It helped, but not enough to avoid the bruising impact against hard earth.  The dust puffed as he hit the ground, making him cough and wheeze.   It was drier, but Tony didn’t have time to even think about that.  He came out of his roll and into a crouch to await whatever danger he might have fallen into this time.  But he saw nothing.  At least nothing of an immediate danger.  Slowly, he rose and turned, looking for any signs of human presence.  There was nothing.  A harsh call from above caused him to look up.  An eagle or hawk, he surmised.   Again, Tony studied the area around him.  There were dry hills in the distance, sagebrush and course grass near his feet. 

Brushing the dust from his clothes, Tony looked for Doug.  Usually they landed together.  Occasionally they had been spatially separated.  Once they had been temporally separated, but not since that one early transfer.  “Doug?” he called.  No answer.  “Doug!” he shouted.  He called his friend’s name again, even more loudly.  But the only answer was the taunting echo of his own voice.

The ground seemed to be bathed in a muted red glow and Tony turned to see a huge red-orange sun sitting on the back of distant hills.  He watched, transfixed for a moment, then he again pondered his predicament.  It was already cooling and he was out in the middle of nowhere, alone and with no shelter.  Where is Doug? he wondered and worried.   First, he needed to try and figure out some reference points.  Where he was, mainly.   Fairly dry, judging from the flora and the dusty soil.  Rocky hills around him.  Sagebrush and mesquite.  Maybe Mexico or New Mexico.  Perhaps southern California.  Of course, he could be in Korea or Macedonia, too.  Similar topographies.  Similar topographies, but not similar plant life-- no mesquite in Asia, as far as he could figure.  Still, he couldn’t be sure about anything until he got more information.

Tony decided to head toward the setting sun.  If he could see something from the ridge, maybe that would help him get a better idea of his location.  Or maybe he would spot Doug.   If there were some sort of habitation, perhaps Doug would be there already.  Tony was concerned about his friend.  Doug hadn’t looked well at all, despite his reassurances to the contrary.   Tony was sure that some kind of bug had made it through a purging transfer recently.  Determined to reach the hill before it was totally dark, Tony began trotting toward the setting sun.   The dry, cool air was refreshing after that little stint in the Jurassic and he was able to make good time, getting to the crest of the hill just after the sun had fully set.   He stood panting, catching his breath, gazing toward the west.  In the distance was the glint of water.  The ocean.  Could be California, he thought.  His dad had taken him on a tour of southern California before that ill-fated military transfer to Hawaii.  They had visited spots that appeared much like this.  He gazed over the sloping meadow below and then turned in every direction, trying to spot anything that could indicate habitation or better yet, Doug. 

The twilight deepened and Tony spotted the twinkle of firelight to the southwest.  While he realized that this was most likely wilderness of at least a hundred or more years in the past, the traveler decided that he couldn’t stay up on this ridge all night.  A breeze was already kicking up and it would get colder.  He had to at least keep moving.  At least in this possible time frame, there were no carnosaurs.  

A quarter moon was already high above him and gave little light, casting shadows that distorted more than pointed out, but Tony carefully trod down the hill.  Using the brightest stars to guide him, he walked toward the only sign of human habitation he had seen in this place.  In the distance a coyote howled and Tony shivered.  Another answered and in a different direction he heard the soft sound of an owl hooting.   After walking some distance, Tony saw a burly oak in front of him and he gazed at it, pondering.  Should he continue toward the firelight, or should he take refuge in the tree?  Where in the world is Doug?  But Tony realized that the safer course was to spend the night in the tree, waiting until the light to continue his hunt.   While it seemed much safer than the place from which they had come, he had already heard several predators and he remembered that once upon a time, bears, mountain lions and wolves roamed the western North American landscape. 

With a sigh, Tony approached the tree and studied it.  One limb was a little lower than the others and he scrambled up to it.  Soon he was settled in the crotch where two large limbs converged with the trunk.   It was not the most comfortable bed he had ever slept in, but it was somewhat safe.  Tony heard the distant howling of coyotes or wolves and tried to sleep, shifting to get more comfortable.  Despite the rough bark against his back, he quickly drifted off.   

 

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Doug didn’t remember falling; coming back to earth.  He didn’t remember taking off his jacket or walking, walking, walking.  He didn’t remember falling onto the dusty ground and he certainly didn’t remember the surreal voices asking him things in a language that wasn’t his own.   He only remembered cold and hot, hot and cold and being so very tired.  Deathly tired.  Only vaguely did he remember someone picking him up, carrying him, laying him in a rough, hard bed.  Water; someone giving him water.  It was cool on his parched throat.  And then he remembered nothing at all…. 

Father Felipe looked down at the feverish stranger lying in the small room that served as an infirmary and pondered.  Where in the world had he come from?  The man had muttered something unintelligible, but the priest couldn’t decipher anything.  The clothes were totally confusing, but he thought that the sick man might be an American or British from the look of them.  If so, though, how did he get here?  There had been no news of any foreigners in the area. 

Shaking his head, the padre cleaned the infected wound on the man’s arm as well as the long slash on his leg, then bound both wounds up.  Father Felipe wondered where this stranger had been.  The wound on his leg appeared fresh, in that there was still blood evidence, but it had closed without any kind of binding.  Confused, the priest noticed that the trousers’ leg had not been torn, either.  The cut on his arm appeared to have been made by a sword, but it had become infected.  Father Felipe would dress both wounds again in the morning, praying before he went to bed for the man’s recovery.  The priest sat back and gazed carefully at the visitor.  A large man, perhaps even taller than Diego de la Vega, the stranger was lean.  He was also fairly young, perhaps early thirties, the priest thought.  His hair was short, medium brown, his skin fair.   With a sigh, Father Felipe got up from the chair and gave a few instructions to Pablo, his medical assistant; then he headed toward the chapel where he lit a candle for the sick man. 

 

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The creature gave a loud, hissing cry and then collapsed on top of the masked man.  Zorro felt the hot blood from the several wounds soaking his shirt and running down his cheek where it had splashed during the fight.  When the beast made no more moves, Zorro dropped the knife and tried to heave the body off him.  He had been pinned in an awkward position, across his lower chest where he couldn’t easily use his legs or arms.  Its weight was like a crushing boulder and he figured it had to be at least the weight of two normal-sized men lying across his chest.  He wriggled and pushed, using his legs to try and lever himself out from under the beast.  He was making some progress when, suddenly, in the dim light, Zorro saw another figure standing above him, gesturing. 

‘I will pull; you push,’ Bernardo motioned with his fingers, then he grabbed a back leg and pulled.  

With the mozo’s help, the task became easy and soon Zorro was on his feet staring at the animal.  “Help me get it into the cave.  I want to examine it,” he said.  Soon they had it dragged in the cave.  Tornado snorted and rolled his eyes in fear and the two men pulled it closer to the stairs that led up to the casa grande.  Bernardo brought the spare lantern to Zorro and lit it from the one that he had been using to tend to Manuel.   Zorro and Bernardo stared at the dead creature at their feet, unable to say anything in their amazement.  Holding the lantern close to the head, Zorro examined it carefully, gazing at the elongated snout with numerous razor sharp teeth, slight bony crest from the front of its face to the top of its head.  The neck was long, about the same length as a horse’s, but more sinewy.  The torso was built for running, but the shoulders were also very powerful, the front legs muscular.  Somehow Zorro didn’t think it was just from running its prey, but also from tearing flesh.  The front claws were like scimitars and he felt very lucky to have been able to strike the killing blows as quickly as he did.  The back legs were larger and also powerful. 

Bernardo tapped on his arm and Zorro pulled his gaze away from the dead creature.  ‘What is it?’ Bernardo gestured with one hand.

“I have no idea,” Zorro answered softly. 

‘You are very fortunate,’ Bernardo added.

Zorro nodded.  “It resembles a large lizard in the conformation of its head.”  He pointed to the ridge on its head.  “But I haven’t seen a lizard with something like that.”  Then he pointed to the front claws.  “Not even a mountain cat has anything like that.”

Bernardo gestured to the animal and then to the front of Zorro’s costume.  In the flickering light of the lantern the drying blood and the black of the costume were hard to tell apart, but the mozo’s signs were easy to understand. 

“I was very fortunate, Bernardo,” Zorro murmured.  “Those claws are as sharp as sabers.”  He paused.  “I cannot imagine what this thing can be.”  Bending down, Zorro took off his mask to examine the creature more closely.  He judged it to be able to stand about four feet high and its length, including the tail was close to six feet.  A very efficient killing machine.  But why hadn’t any of these things been seen before now?  Something this large, powerful and quick wouldn’t have stayed unknown for all this time without there being at least a rumor of it.  He hadn’t even heard of a slight whisper of such a creature among the Indians and they knew about everything that lived and grew in the region.  Shaking his head, he studied the animal again.  It would begin to decay within a day or so.  He needed to get some kind of measurements, description and a sketch of it before it had to be disposed of.   “I am going to get some writing paper and take down some notes about this thing before it has to be buried.” 

Diego got up and began walking toward the stone steps.  A tapping noise stopped him.  Turning, he saw Bernardo signing.  He watched patiently until the servant was finished, then he nodded.  “Yes, we will have to find a safe place for Manuel before morning.  I had not forgotten,” Diego said.  “I had in mind to take him to the Mission, Bernardo.  There Father Felipe can take care of his wounds and Manuel will be under the protection of the Church.”     Bernardo nodded, smiling.    “But there is time for me to clean up, write down some notes about this creature and then take the boy to the Mission.” 

Bernardo signed again, ‘When you get back, I will get a carriage ready.’

“Yes, definitely, the carriage would be easier on young Villegro,” Diego said.  “I will be back in a short while.”  Without waiting for a response, the caballero dashed up the steps and out of sight. 

Bernardo turned back toward the wounded man after another long look at the vicious creature near the foot of the stairs.  Tornado echoed his mood by snorting and pawing the hard ground.

When Diego returned, his arms were loaded with writing and drawing utensils, and he had changed into a clean costume.  “How is Manuel?”

Bernardo signed that he had finished cleaning his abused back and the young man was sleeping soundly, thanks to a sleeping draught he had given him. 

“Good.  I will take down some notes on this creature and then we can take the boy to the Mission.  Give me a hand and I can get this done more quickly.”  Diego laid down his supplies, including a very large book.  Bernardo looked inside the leather bound cover.  It was about various creatures of the world.  He looked up.  Diego shrugged.  “I don’t recall reading anything about such a beast, but thought I would bring this down anyway.  I may have missed something.”  Bernardo nodded and took the paper and pen from his master’s hands.  

Diego began measuring the strange beast, calling out the numbers to Bernardo.   Then later, while Bernardo left to get the carriage ready, he jotted down a description before attempting to draw various features of its anatomy.  He wasn’t even aware when Bernardo returned to the cave until the mozo tapped him on the shoulder.

Bernardo indicated that the carriage was a short distance away, ready for the trip to the Mission.  “Yes, I should leave now,” Diego said, putting aside the writing utensils and then putting on his cape and mask.  Picking up the injured man, he called to Tornado to follow and then he ducked through the brush hiding the entrance.  Bernardo and the horse followed. 

After Manuel had been made comfortable in the carriage, Zorro got into the driver’s seat and picked up the reins.  Bernardo gestured to himself and frowned. 

“No, Bernardo, it would be much easier to explain that I took the de la Vega carriage.  If you were along, it would be much more difficult to come up with a logical explanation for your presence,” Zorro said.  “Besides, I am worried about any other creatures like this.  Surely there would not be just one.”   He laid a hand on Bernardo’s shoulder.  “No, it’s better if you stay here.”

Bernardo sighed lustily and nodded.  Zorro shook the reins and the carriage rattled off into the darkness.  A whistle and Tornado trotted along behind.  It was only a few hours before dawn, but without moonlight, it would take all of that time to get to the Mission.  As the mule trotted along the familiar roadway toward the pueblo, Zorro listened for strange sounds.  He also listened to Tornado, trotting alongside the carriage, for any indications of anything amiss.  This creature was like something out a horrible nightmare.  It seemed to be fearless, vicious and deadly.  Unlike most of the wild creatures around here, this beast seemed to hold no regard for man.   For something like that to be on the loose near the ranchos, as well as the Mission and the pueblo was a chilling thought.  If there were more, they would have to be killed or captured.

There was nothing other than the normal sounds of the night—insects, night birds, an occasional coyote howling.   They continued their slow way toward the Mission until just before dawn, when the eastern hills began to turn rosy and then golden with the rising sun, Zorro saw the brightly whitewashed walls of the Mission before him.  He sighed his relief and urged the mule to a faster trot.  It was then he heard the same high-pitched squalling that he had heard before the attack of the first creature.  Tornado neighed his fright and then cried out a challenging scream of his own.  Zorro slapped the reins against the mule’s rump, but the animal needed no further encouragement.  It broke into a run toward the Mission, as though knowing that safety and sanctuary lay within the thick walls. 

 

 

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