Chapter Sixty-Six -- Thunder

I love the prairie and the plains. I grew up out there and I've always felt better out on the open land. The smells are right and the atmosphere I can understand. The prairie, from my understanding, simply has more water. It's at a lower elevation and the water table is often within twenty feet of the surface of the ground. Small waterways abounded, particularly before industrialized farming took over, and it was truly the land of milk and honey.

Plains were drier and the water wasn't quite as easy; it was still available, just not quite so frequent. That meant you simply had to dig a little deeper to access that water. The plains were also flat and almost smooth, not riddled with brooks, ponds, and gentle rolling hills like the prairie was. The plains were perfect for large scale farming.

The Nebraska prairie in 1822 offered something that was hard to find in modern America. Stars! With a clear sky and a new moon, the stars began at the horizon with the same pitch black darkness you saw only when closed inside of a vault or coffin in the modern world. You could see stars you simply didn't know existed. It was a shame to have to travel through time to avoid light pollution, but it was very much worth it.

The prairie was like the ocean in many ways; the stars were only one such example. Another way was the weather. Much like the ocean, the weather was untethered by mountains, trees, and heatsinks out here. When the Gods of Weather came out to play, the plains and the ocean were their favorite haunts.

Now, they say that the visible horizon in flat land is about fifteen miles, due to the curvature of the earth. But storm clouds aren't at ground level and you can see them much further out, sometimes as much as a hundred miles away. But, just like over the ocean, the clouds over the prairie can move fast if they want to. Anybody who grew up out there knows it's time to move quickly when you see the thunderheads building. A thunderhead was building to the northwest.

I sniffed the air and gave my gelding a little more rein to work with. He upped the pace to a canter. The pack horses weren't trailing behind us any longer, they were almost abreast of my gelding and pushing for more. I trusted their instinct and gave the gelding free rein. He shifted speed to a gentle lope and made a slight change in course. I was simply along for the ride and Brin was running behind us to keep up. I could see the storm approaching in the distance and it looked to be less than an hour away.

The horses ate up the ground at an amazing pace and the lope didn't seem to require much effort on their part. It was like a slow gallop and was easier on the rider than a canter or trot. Within ten minutes, I could see the Platte river valley up ahead of us, I could see our destination and now it was only a matter of getting there and sheltering before the storm struck.

Fifteen minutes later, we on our way down the gradual slope into the Platte valley and I could see groves of trees ahead of us. I set course for a large grove of willows, knowing that there would be water there as well. As we approached, there was more and more brush, then small trees, and the horses fell back into trailing line as we wound our way through the brush. There was a willow grove ahead and we headed for that.

In the middle of the willow grove was a gully with a small stream running through. We crossed the stream to put the wall of the gully on the windward side. I dismounted and let the horses water. I unsaddled them while they drank and then picketed them under a medium-sized willow before quickly starting to setup my lean-to under another nearby willow. I set up the lean-to with its opening away from the wind and quickly dug a V-shaped trench to funnel the water away. The rain started as I stashed my packs under cover and Brin climbed in quickly as well.

The storm was approaching from the northwest and I could feel its cold wind begin to blow away the heat of the day. I got out some dried meat to eat and pulled on my rain poncho.

I lit a cigarette and watched the storm on final approach. The darkness came early and lightning flashed across the sky. I watched as a twister spawned up in the clouds and then spun out moments later. By now, I could see the wall of water approaching. I checked the horses one last time and then climbed into the shelter with Brin to wait out the storm. It was a half hour of madness, followed by another hour of steady rain. There were several lightning strikes nearby, easily within a mile, and the thunder was loud enough to rattle the fillings in your teeth. Thank the heavens that none of the twisters came down around us.

We got wet, but the lean-to held and we didn't get soaked. The clouds had completely cleared and you could see the sun preparing to set on the horizon. It was a beautiful moment and the air was absolutely still. I moved the horse picket line into a grassy area so they could graze, then set about building a fire so I could start to dry out.

With a small fire finally going, I put a pot of water on to boil. Tonight's supper was going to be venison stew with rice; it would take a little while to prep and cook. I pulled out some dried mushrooms, a carrot, and an onion from my pack, along with my cutting leather and a piece of dried venison. The cutting leather was a simple eight inch by eight inch square of thick leather backed with long thin metal ribs to add stability. It provided a clean and mostly flat cutting surface that you could simply roll up when finished. It was lightweight and most importantly it kept your blade from being dulled.

I cut the dried venison and mushrooms and added them to the pot while the water started to come to temperature; the dried goods would need time to soften. While that all went on, I cleaned and chopped a carrot and onion in half, stowing the other halves for the next meal. Those were added to the pot along with a healthy pinch of spices from the spice bag Matilda had prepared for me. I adjusted the pot so it was just barely boiling and sat back to have a cigarette while our supper cooked.

I fired up the phone and did a little reading, I focused mainly on re-reading papers on the history of the area. I kept the phone off and packed away most of the time. It had a battery life of about thirty-six hours if it were on, even if all the radios were turned off. The radios, obviously, were useless, so they were off and by managing the power carefully I was getting at least two weeks of use between charges. It was nice to be able to read.

After about fifteen minutes, the mushrooms and meat were almost ready, so I threw in a handful of rice and started the countdown to supper, sharpening my knife while I waited.

Brin and I ate well that night.

Chapter Sixty-Seven -- An Inch Deep and a Mile Wide

The morning coffee was good, even if it was made Turkish style. That means made with just a measure of ground coffee tossed into hot water and boiled. It was tasty. I still had sugar with my coffee also; I liked a pinch of sweetness in the first mug of the day. I wasn't big on sweet foods outside of that. Most days, I only ate a small amount of sweets to be polite and still personally felt it was the greatest drug push of the modern world. Hell, in the modern world, you could even find pickles with sugar added in which really contradicts everything about pickling. Sugar made a lot of people rich and a lot of people sick or dead so I classified it as a drug.

I packed up camp and headed out to find a good fording spot on the Platte. The Platte has some pitfalls to it. The greatest are quicksand and shifting, fast-moving channels. The general plan was to ride the riverbank until I found a spot with an island or two to shorten my risk exposure. It's best if they are in a vertical row so you didn't have to fight the current on the way across.

From my slightly elevated view coming down to the river, I could see a section that looked promising, with three islands each located slightly east and down river from the next. The downside was that the current would be faster, the upside was that exposure to quicksand would be limited. I hoped to swim the horses across those sections but we'd swim with the current and not try to fight it. It was time to get wet again.

We followed the game trail down to the river bank. We ended up about a hundred feet upstream of the first island with a small sand beach to walk out on from the bank. The plan was to build a raft to carry the tack and packs, tether the horses to it and then after I crossed, I'd pull the raft over with horses following behind it. While horses swim pretty well, they don't swim with anything on their back so I needed the raft. I tethered the horses, grabbed my ax and went looking for raft-making logs.

It took me a while, but I eventually found and cut enough dry fall to build a small raft that would float all of my gear. I bound it together with rope. This was modern light-weight rope and wouldn't pass the time test whatsoever. Had I known I was traveling time, I would have only purchased hand-twisted hemp rope. But hell, if I had known I was traveling time I would have done many things differently. However, if you're outfitting for camping and packing, you take rope. I had it and I was going to use it; it's not like there were people around to comment on my strange rope.

I long-tethered the horses to the raft, which was loaded with my gear and had my rope attached to it. Then I took my boots and shirt off and waded out into the water, aiming for the upstream tip of the first island. I walked straight out knowing I would be upstream of the island if the current didn't grab me. I trailed the rope behind me and kept my feet in constant motion. Brin followed me.

The water was cold. Nuts-relocating-to-your-stomach cold. It was only May, after all, and cold water did mean no snakes or leeches; I tried to take that part as a blessing. I was within yards of the island shore when the river bed fell out from under me and I swam for my life. It was less than ten yards to the island bank, but it seemed like a mile. Brin ended up all the way down on the second island. I was on the downstream end of the first. The current was that powerful.

I commanded Brin to Stay; I didn't need to lose him to loyalty. I then worked my way back up to the tip island to bring across my packs and horses. When I got to the upstream tip of this island, I reeled in all of the slack in the rope and tied it off to a tree. I waded up the sand bar a little bit, slowly pulling the raft out into the slow part of the river. As soon as the raft was coming my way, the horses had to follow.

I knew where the current was now, and as the horses plunged ahead to get across, I reeled the raft in as quickly as possible. Surprisingly, the horses did better than Brin or I had. They made it to the shallow water near the shore, about halfway down the first island. They were standing in the sand, snorting their indignation at the entire scenario, when I caught up to them. The good news was that my raft had held and all of our gear was mostly dry, the bad news was that we weren't done yet.

I rewound up the rope and climbed back into the water. I pulled the raft down to the end so we could transit to the second island. I was already tired and wanted to set up camp for the night, but this needed to be done and over with. The spring weather could change at any moment and I wanted to be off the river if that happened.

Transition to the second island was difficult, but not nearly as bad. The channel here wasn't as deep or fast, and I could touch my feet to the bottom, if necessary. I still had to swim, but the distance was shorter and it was far less dramatic. The raft and the horses came over without issue and Brin was happy to see us. Crossing to the third island was even easier, I simply waded across, watching for quicksand as I went.

We were all on the third island in no time, and all I had to do was make to make it to the far river bank and this ordeal was over. I looked at the final channel and almost threw up in my mouth. I couldn't tell how deep it was, but it was fast and angry looking. I truly had my doubts about this one. I'd be lucky if we all made it intact.

Well there weren't a lot of choices so I got up to push on. As I coiled my rope for my next attempt, I heard a man yell. Fuck...that was all that I needed.

I looked across the channel and there, on the other side, was a group of natives looking at me. I had no idea what to do and was about to look for cover on that tiny island, when one of them yelled in very bad. English, "Throw rope."

I was flummoxed at first and simply stood there staring at them. Finally, I decided, 'What the hell,' and found a suitably heavy stick to attach to the end of the rope. I spun it around a few times and flung it to them. Well, a couple of them grabbed that rope and started reeling it in, I decided to go for broke, and, taking Brin by the collar, got a firm grip on the rope and let them pull me and my belongings across.

The current was vicious but, with strong men on the end of the rope, we came across quickly. The raft followed and the horses, as well. Damn horses made it look easy, until they staggered up on the shore and just stood there blowing. I pulled my raft up on the beach and turned to thank or fear these guys; after all who knew what kind of mess I was in now.

Chapter Sixty-Eight -- An evening with the Pawnee

Exhausted. That was exactly what I felt. So exhausted I fell to my hands and knees and was dry heaving. Brin collapsed next to me and he wasn't in much better shape. My horses were blowing and shaking the water out; their eyes looked pretty dull.

Of course, my rescuers were laughing and chatting back in forth in a language I didn't recognize. I reckoned I'd just done something stupid.

I finally pulled myself back to my feet and stood there, somewhat shakily, looking at them. They laughed even harder. There were ten of them in total, mostly young teens, with the one guy about my age. He was the one who had called to me. He laughed the hardest whenever one of the young guys made a new crack.

I grabbed my pack towel and dried the river water away, then pulled on my shirt and boots. The exhaustion slowly ebbed as I clothed myself and, once I was reasonably presentable, I turned to the apparent leader and asked, "What is funny?"

Yes, I spoke in pidgin English; I also carefully enunciated my words. When dealing with foreign languages, it was best to ensure they understood exactly what you were saying. If you just rattled on, throwing in slang and such communication would become nearly impossible.

It turned out what was so funny is that, about a half of days travel upstream, there was a spot you could wade across the river. I looked at them in disbelief and then simply sat on a log with my face in my hands for a minute. That brought on even more peals of laughter.

I did the proper then and introduced myself to the leader and thanked them all for their help. I used my standard handshake greeting because I simply didn't know theirs, but he seemed comfortable with that. His name was Petalesharo but I was to call him Pete. Well, that threw me a little bit and I vowed to follow up over dinner.

Pete sent his guys out in three man teams to scout, track, and forage on our way back to their camp. "We train young men today," he said matter-of-factly. I simply looked at him, so he continued, "Scout for Army, helps bring food in winter". I certainly understood that; the Pawnee were famous Army Scouts and their bravery and service had been well documented.

We finished the short journey silently, with Brin and the horses trailing behind. Dinner and sleep couldn't come soon enough, in my book. Pete set an amazingly fast pace for how silently he moved. You could tell this was a skill that was decades in the making. He was not a man you would want to go one-on-one with in the forest or brush. I was the elephant behind him. I was probably even clumsier because he was so damn good; have you ever danced with a true talent? Even if you have some skills of your own, you lose rhythm and step on toes like never before. That was me, bumbling along behind him. He grinned at me a lot, which only made me stumble more. That was enough, I planned to have my bourbon revenge tonight.

He led us down a bare memory of a side trail and into their small camp. It was barely big enough for the lot of them. He took the horses' lead from me and led us about a hundred yards further down the same trail to a small clear spot. He turned to me and said, "You sleep here, eat there with us." I merely nodded and smiled. I would have had visitors that night, regardless, and they probably would have stolen my horses just for fun. They were in training, after all, and horse thieving was one of their favorite cultural pastimes.

"No fire," he said, "tonight boys steal horses." I smiled and nodded. "No shoot!" he said, "they learn."

"Ok," was the best reply I could think of. I'm so frigging witty sometimes. Actually, I was thinking that Brin might have an entirely different opinion on the matter; it would be good training for somebody either way.

"Dark comes, we eat, you join."

"OK," I was still on a verbal roll.

Pete left and I got busy setting up camp, spending way too much time considering what I should bring to the dinner tonight. In the end, I simply settled on my whetting stone and weapon cleaning gear. I'd check over my firearms and sharpen my sharp things while we conversed.

It was strange, setting up camp without a fire. I knew why and I took that as a good lesson. I was sure I'd get a few more before the night was over. I fed the horses and gave Brin his dinner. He got the meat I was intending to eat that night and it didn't seem to hurt his feelings. I set him to protect the horses and camp. He didn't seem to mind too much as he stretched out in our lean-to, happily gnawing on his rabbit carcass.

It was nearing full dark when I strode into the Pawnee camp. There was a small fire in a deep hole in the middle of the camp. You couldn't even see it from the trail. Well, I just strode on in figuring I'd be quieter that way than if I tried to actually walk quietly. Obviously, these guys knew I was coming; they were scouts after all. They even pretended to be slightly surprised when I walked in. I just played along and made with my best manners.

I was greeted by Petalesharo and introduced around. I couldn't pronounce, let alone memorize, half their names, so I committed their faces to memory and went with that. We sat down around the fire and one of the boys produced a water skin that turned out to have some sort of slightly sweet tea in it. It was very tasty. I had brought a couple of cups, a bowl, and a spoon with me in my shoulder bag, so I poured myself a polite measure.

It wasn't a large cup, only holding about 6 ounces, but it was carved out of wood and worked just perfectly, being period specific and all that. The spoon and bowl were wood, also, and just a little larger. Holder had carved them for me and did an amazing job. He was turning into a handy asset to have around.

Up close, I could see that there was a small diagonal tunnel running into the fire pit, feeding air to the fire. Every once in a while someone would run a stick down through there to keep the embers stirred and the air passage open. It was amazingly effective at cooking, though it wouldn't do much to warm you and would be worthless on a wet day. But it worked better than an electric range in the clear weather.

"We bring wood, also," commented Pete, "it is very dry and make no smoke. When we leave, clean." He said, as he waved his hand around the campsite. I was impressed; even their sleeping mats were deer skin with the hair still left on them. I supposed that if you found a compressed area in the grass it would simply seem like a white-tail had bedded down there.