Rain. Sheets of rain. Downpour.
“Ah, shit.” Lasher spoke. “C’mon, move it! We gotta get this shit packed up.” So right away, even before we looked around, the three of us scrambled around and loaded the horses, and saddled the horses, and put on rain clothes, and generally ran around like idiots, until everything was squared away. Jack was wet, shivering. And then, of course, the rain stopped.
And I looked around, for the first time, at North America, roughly 12,000 years ago. You’ve never experienced anything like this. The air smelled unbelievably fresh and cool. The sky was clearing and a brisk wind was blowing. I could see low hills, obscured a little by the mist that was breaking up. It was cool, morning, early spring. A couple birds flashed by, but I couldn’t tell what they were. Bird song – lots of bird song. The country was lightly wooded. We were still so close to the Mississippi that trees could grow. The trees were just budding out. I saw oaks, hickory, a couple willows down in a stream bed near us.
The horses stamped, and a little steam rose from their coats. Lasher looked around. We all looked around. Jack trotted around us, head down, sniffing avidly. I found I was grinning. Devereaux laughed a little. Even Lasher smiled. After a minute or two, Lasher said “All right, let’s get going.” So we mounted up and set off.
The first night, we built a small fire, and set up camp for the first time, on a low rise, in a grove of oaks. And started talking. Lasher did, anyway. He sat there, drinking tea, and asked me, “So, what are we up against?” I turned. “What are we likely to encounter out here?” he said. “I’ve read some about the Pleistocene, but I’d like to hear what you can tell us. Hey, Devereaux – listen up!” Devereaux had been futzing around with one of his rifles, but he stopped, and came over to where we were sitting.
“Well,” I said, “that’s really the sixty-four thousand dollar question, isn’t it? No-one really knows. I mean, we have fossil evidence of all kinds of animals, most of whom are now extinct – extinct in our time, that is. But there’s tons of stuff we don’t know. “
“What kind of animals?”
“Lots. Lions, bigger than African lions; bison – like superbison – bigger than today’s. Camels, horses, cheetahs, hyenas, sloths. Saber toothed cats; a giant bear – the short-faced bear – probably the biggest land predator alive in this time. Mammoths.”
“Jesus Christ,” Devereaux said. “It’s the American Serengeti.”
“Yeah, and other animals, too. Only, we don’t know nearly enough about them – how many there were; how they lived, how they hunted. Almost nothing. That’s one thing Carver was back here studying.”
“Yeah, or why they went extinct.” Lasher said.
“That’s right – we don’t know why that was. “
“Maybe the cavemen wiped them out,” Devereaux said.
“Well, they weren’t really cavemen,” I said. “The people of what we call the Clovis culture were some of the earliest settlers in North America. We’ve found their stone points, sometimes associated with the skeletons of mammoths. But again there is still a lot we don’t know. Where’d they come from? When? How? How did they live? Where? How many were there? This stuff, too, Carver was supposed to be researching.”
“Okay,” Lasher said “Big animals, and lots of ‘em. How will they react when they see people? Do we have to worry about ‘lions and tigers and bears oh my?’”
“Yeah, and what about the natives,” Devereaux asked. “They gonna sneak up on us?”
“Man, I don’t know,” I said. “The people would probably be curious about us, but how that would play out, I don’t know.”
“They better not fuck with us,” Devereaux said. Christ! All of a sudden he was a tough guy.
“Look,” I said, “they’re not cavemen. They’re homo sapiens, just like us. Modern humans. As smart as we are, and presumably well adapted to living out here. We can’t just kill them.”
“No-one’s talking about killing them, right Devereaux?” Lasher said. “But what about the animals? Wolf packs, or lions or what have you?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “This country is so lightly populated that most of the animals, the predators will never have seen people before. They’d have no reason to fear us. But we won’t be familiar to them either, so I don’t think they’ll regard us as prey.”
“Yeah,” Lasher said, “but they’re top of the line – apex predators. They’d have no reason to fear us, right? But maybe they’re curious. Or really hungry. Maybe we look like easy meals to them. And didn’t you say there were horses here, now? I’ll bet they’ve seen horses before, and think they’re tasty as hell.” He stood up. “So what I think is, we’d better be careful. I think we’ll take watches, tonight and every night. Wear the night vision goggles, and keep a sharp eye out. “
That actually seemed like a good idea. All of a sudden I had visions of packs of huge dire wolves slowly sneaking up and surrounding us. Just meat for the ravenous.
Nothing happened that night. We took watches, and it was weird, I can tell you, sitting there, in the absolute darkness, the fire died down to only embers, no ambient light. The stars looked low, close to the earth, brilliant, like a flung pitcher of milk. A few clouds, scudding across the sky. The sliver of the moon rose late.
I heard coyotes yelping, and then, farther off, wolves. A pack, howling. That wild and alien sound was haunting. Jack stiffened, and I thought that he was going to chime in with their chorus. But then I heard the hoarse coughing roar of lion. A lion! That’s when I knew, I mean really knew, that we were someplace entirely other, some place and time wholly different from our own. The horses stamped, restlessly, with some atavistic sense that that wild sound meant danger. Jack’s ears pricked up, and he growled once, low in his throat. I called him over, and he flopped down next to me, and I petted him for a while. Just before dawn, a fox came snooping around the edges of our camp, but our scent was unfamiliar, and it didn’t come into the camp.
Dawn, clear and quite cool. The sky at first a light, pale blue. The birdsong was loud. Larks, thrushes, robins. Skeins of geese and other waterfowl, flying north. Because it was, really, our first day, we celebrated at breakfast with some of the precious store of coffee we had brought with us.
It didn’t take long to establish our routine, even though there wasn’t, really, any routine, at all. What I mean is, we’d set out early in the morning, making our way west and a little south, stop briefly at midday, then ride on until evening, when we’d set up our camp. But there was no routine, really, because of the terrain. The ground here, in what would later be Missouri and eastern Kansas was rough, wild, unfamiliar. Deadfalls, streams, rocky outcroppings – everything had to be climbed over or around. Jack loped around, walking, trotting, sniffing the air, of course, but we kept him close to us – didn’t let him range out in front, the way he had when he’d hiked together back home. In the mornings, before we mounted up, and at lunch, and then again, in the evenings, I’d work with him, reinforcing our bond, and improving his training.
We passed through the some light woods, and had to stop when a small herd of woods bison came through. They seemed enormous, dark chocolate-brown, moving sedately, silently past. Totally unafraid of us. One bull snorted a little as he passed. And then gone, like a dream. Strange that animals that large could move so quietly. No calves, yet, probably too early in the year. I grabbed Jack’s collar, out of habit; and then decided to try an experiment. So I let him go, and simply said “stay.” And he stayed. Oh, he looked at the bison as they passed, and sniffed them, and crouched down in that way that border collies have – but he stayed.
After several days of travel, the woods thinned, and the country became more savannah–like. It was our third day, when we first saw them – Mammoths. A group of them. The matriarch leading them, then several cows with calves. Browsing leisurely through the trees. They were enormous. Brown hair, coming off in patches, chunks, streamers. Grumbling, rumbling noises as they moved, with that slow, ponderous, implacable gait. They seemed out-of-place. They were out-of-place – better adapted to steppe country than to the savannah that surrounded us. Their huge tusks were better suited to sweeping snow off covered ground, and their thick shaggy pelts were hardly necessary, at this time of year, in this climate. Why they were this far south, I didn’t know. They continued to browse, moving in a generally northeast direction. I watched them for what seemed like hours, until they disappeared. Even Devereaux seemed moved. Until I heard him say, “Jesus, what a trophy that’d make.”