TIME SPIKE – snippet 15:
Stephen McQuade didn’t expect the rifle butt slammed into his lower back. He fell to his knees, gasping in pain. He’d been floating in and out of consciousness for hours. Maybe days. It was hard for him to decide. He had been beaten too many times to be sure of anything.
But the beatings were the easy part. The hard part was the fear. The knowing what was next. After each beating he’d had been tied to a tree and was able to watch one Indian after another tortured then killed. He assumed they were Indians, anyway, although he didn’t recognize their language or their manner of dress and personal decoration. They certainly weren’t Cherokee or any other of the southern tribes he was familiar with.
He did recognize the language spoke by their captors. They were Spaniards. He couldn’t speak or understand Spanish, beyond a few words, but he knew the sound of the language. These men could be nothing else.
They were brutal beyond belief. Not even the worst sort of Georgia militiamen would have been this savage. First they’d torture and eventually murder the children, so their parents could see them die. Then, apparently not getting the information they demanded, they started on the women. That was just as slow and even more degrading. Finally, the men. One at a time. Hour after hour.
Hands pulled him to his feet, then a moment later he was back on the ground gasping, bleeding from a blow to the back of his head. Kicks were coming from all directions; he closed his eyes in an attempt to protect his vision as his head and body were pounded. Someone ground the heel of his boot onto McQuade’s left ankle. His hands were tied behind his back, so he couldn’t fight back. Stephen curled his legs towards his chest, protecting himself the best he could.
Someone kicked him in the groin. The world faded to gray.
The beating continued. Stopped. Then continued. His nose broke and his sinuses closed. He had to breathe through his mouth: His lips were split and some of his teeth were gone. The pain was too much for him to know how many. Hands grabbed at his hair, dragging him through the dirt and over the bodies of those already dead. The pain was everything. There was nothing else.
A voice came from somewhere. He thought that was the man the others called De Soto. He was demanding something. Stephen tried to answer, but it hurt too much to open his mouth. He wondered if his jaw was broken. Then, decided it didn’t really matter.
Someone grabbed the leather that bound his hands behind his back and jerked him to his feet. His shoulders screamed. One of the soldiers wearing chain mail, leg armor, boots and a steel helmet, stepped in front of him. The man aimed his ancient-looking gun at McQuade and fired. The flesh of his right side tore and burned, and the impact knocked him down.
He tried to crawl away.
The Spaniard standing to the left of the man with the matchlock reached out with a wood-handled halberd and hooked Stephen’s left hip, dragging him back to the center of the small crowd. The one called de Soto placed a booted foot on Stephen’s stomach while the Spaniard with the halberd wrenched its metal tip from where it was buried in bone and muscle. That finally brought blessed unconsciousness.
Stephen woke to the sound of silence.
He forced himself to roll to his side; stopped as the nausea washed over him, then slowly turned his head so he could catch a glimpse with his right eye, which was the one not swollen completely shut. There were no Spaniards, and no Indian corpses. There were footprints and animal tracks. Strange tracks from strange creatures.
He tried to think through what he was seeing, but it was too much for now.
He was alive. And the cave he’d passed the night in was not far from where he lay. He forced himself to get up, as difficult as that was. He needed to walk.
He knew he would die. There was no way to survive his injuries, even if his hands weren’t tied behind his back. But if he stayed out in the open, the dried blood on him would surely attract one of the strange creatures he had seen. The cave would be a much better place to end his life.
Lieutenant Rod Hulbert’s small band of hunters had been out since before daybreak and was starting to tire. They had already taken a buffalo of some kind and what he thought was a ground sloth and were headed back to the prison with more meat than they could comfortably carry. Hunting was going to be even better than he hoped. He nodded to himself and swatted at one of the strange insects flying in circles around his head. On their next foray he would take a larger party with him. That way, carrying their kill wouldn’t be quite so hard.
As heavily loaded as they were, he guessed they wouldn’t get home until sunset tomorrow. Then, grinned when he realized he already thought of the cement and razor wired structure as home.
He called a halt, and the four of them dropped their bundles and stretched out in the grass. They still had four hours of daylight left. They could afford a short break, two hours more of walking, and then they could make camp for the night. Their prey had been boned-out on site, which made carrying the creatures a lot easier. Marie carried at least sixty pounds of the meat, and each of the men were loaded down with still more. Carrying the meat bundles, plus their regular gear was hot, hard work that the insects hadn’t made any easier.
“We’ll take twenty,” he said.
The four of them lay in the grass for almost five minutes without talking. They were tired. It was Jerry Bailey who broke the silence. He sat up and waved toward the small rise to the new north. “You guys go ahead and take a break. I keep hearing something that sounds like water. I wanna take a peek.”
“All right,” Hulbert said. He had heard the noise and guessed it to be a small creek. “But no more than five minutes out. And keep your whistle in your mouth.”
Bailey stood up and stretched. “Be back,” he said.
Rod watched him go, suppressing a grin. Bailey was a hell of a hunter. It had surprised him. The soft-spoken guard hadn’t struck him as much of an outdoorsman. But he was. As a matter of fact, so was Brian Carmichael. And Marie Keehn turned out to be worth more than both of them combined. The four of them had worked well together. Marie had been the one to actually make the kills, but it had been all of them working together that made it possible in such a short time. That and luck.
“I hope Jerry finds a lake with a few croppies, or maybe a bass or two in it.”
Marie laughed. “Brian, if you’re going to make a wish like that, wish for a few catfish.”
“Nope. Bass or croppies. Maybe a pike.” Brian Carmichael sat up. “I grew up down by Kentucky Lake, eating catfish. Every Sunday afternoon we went to Grandma’s for fried kitty-fish, cornbread and greens. I haven’t found anyone who can make those bottom feeders taste like she did. So, I gave up on them.”
“Well, you’ve never tasted my old man’s recipe. You get me the fish and I’ll…” Marie’s grin changed to a frown. “Hulbert,” she whispered. “We’ve got people.”
Rod sat up and looked south, the direction Marie was looking. It didn’t take him long to see what she’d spotted in the distance. A dead fire, obviously made by people.
When they went over to investigate, all they found was a broken arrow and a bead necklace. There was also a mix of tracks—human and animal—leading off into the woods. Blood. Another set of footprints going the same direction Bailey had gone.