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Chapter 6: ADAPTATION

The moon was high, its bright rays shining through the oak leaves. The light made strange patterns and shapes on the ground between the trees. The blotches of darkness seemed impenetrable, making it impossible to see what lurked below.

Despite his thirst, Logan had managed to sleep for awhile. He wasn’t sure how long it had been. The moon was now nearly overhead. It hadn’t even risen when he had dropped off to sleep.

He carefully studied the ground. There was no sign of the cat creature. Perhaps it had left, looking for other prey. Surely there was something to attract it, something easier to catch than one scrawny human.

He thought about climbing down to look for water, then rejected that idea. Even with the moonlight, he couldn’t see well enough to be sure that something wasn’t hiding, waiting for him to make a stupid move.

The tree seemed to be intent on impressing every nuance of its rouogh bark on his posterior. He found that changing position every thirty minutes or so made the fork of the branches barely tolerable. Thirst bothered him more and more as the stars wandered towards sunrise. All-in-all it was an amazingly long and restless night.

Logan had always slept late, but now he was beginning to think that the sun had stopped. When that thought first popped up, he snickered, but then stopped to consider his situation.

He was in a tree, trying to avoid some kind of big and really toothy cat thing, and trying to hold out until morning so he could get a drink. He’d been in the front yard, fallen into the drainage ditch, and then this place had somehow grabbed him. He hadn’t consciously wanted to come here. He’d…Oh! He’d had the idea of escaping that woman. Before that he’d eaten that brownie. Maybe something in it was giving him a bad trip. She’d said it was very strong. Still this didn’t seem like an hallucination. Everything was too real. It had that unmistakable feeling of reality, not like a dream or any kind of altered state of consciousness.

Whatever had happened to thrust him into this situation, it was beyond his understanding. It may have been related to the brownie or it may simply have been chance. It seemed that somehow he’d fallen through a hole, ending in another world, or…and here he paused…another time.

The cat-creature gave him one clue. He hadn’t looked too closely at it, being more concerned with avoiding its jumps, but it had a tawny, sort of stripey coat and a short tail. The most obvious feature was its huge teeth. He’d thought that it reminded him of a saber-tooth tiger, but they were extinct. Only maybe not in this place. Maybe here they weren’t extinct.

Logan gave up trying to figure out what had happened. In a sense it didn’t matter. He was here now and he had to learn how to survive until he could get back to where he’d come from. It really was that simple.

The thought crossed his mind that he might not be able to go back, but he shoved it away. That wasn’t something he wanted to consider.

By this time it was getting light. The sun was peeping over the horizon somewhere out at sea to the east and its light was gradually infiltrating through the foliage that surrounded him. Somewhere a bird started up, singing its morning song. The song quickly changed, and then changed again. It was a mockingbird, had to be. Nothing else sang so many songs at peak volume.

He heaved a sigh of relief. At least he was still on Earth. He’d thought for a moment that he might be on another planet. All he’d had to go on was the impossible cat or tiger of the saber-tooth variety. A mockingbird was at least familiar and made the place seem very Florida-like despite the lack of people and houses.

Logan maneuvered around and stood up, trying to stretch the cramps out of his neck and back while he waited for his left leg to regain its circulation. He’d been sitting in such a way that it was wedged tightly into the fork of the tree and now it hurt and tingled.

He carefully edged over and rested his hand on one of the more vertical branches, unzipped his pants, and relieved himself. The stream spattered on the dried leaves below. There was no answering sound. He’d half expected the cat to come charging out at the sound.

Finished, he began to edge onto the connecting branch to the magnolia tree. He’d descend carefully, then see about a drink. The idea of water tormented him now, and he had to mentally restrain his movements. It wouldn’t be good to slip and fall. He had to be careful.

He reached the magnolia with no sign of his attacker. Just to make sure, he broke off a rotten stub and threw it into the bushes. It made a gratifying rustle and crunch. Then all was silent except for that mockingbird. It continued to sing somewhere over near the edge of the stand of trees.

That was a good sign, wasn’t it? Logan thought that birds might be quiet or sound some kind of alarm call if anything dangerous was nearby, but he wasn’t sure about that. All he had to go on was his brief experience at the dig site, and, years ago, a week at summer camp with the Cub Scouts. He was realistic enough to recognize that he couldn’t really rely on the information he’d seen on the TV.

“I wish I’d read more prepper-type stuff on the Internet,” he muttered as he climbed down the smaller tree.

The last branch was about five feet up, and it decided that his weight was too much this time around. It snapped, precipitating him onto the ground in an undignified fashion. The fall knocked the wind out of him, but he jumped up, looking wildly around, preparing to either run or to try to climb the tree again. Nothing happened. The saber-tooth must have given up and gone elsewhere for its meal.

The beach was over towards the sunrise. That made sense, as did the idea that there wouldn’t be any fresh water over there. So, he’d have to go the other direction. He threaded his way between the bushes, trying his best not to make any noise. It was harder than he’d thought. The dry leaves crunched, as did a stick that he stepped on.

After awhile, he reached a thicker area that was full of brush. He could see that he was near the edge of the trees. The brush was the last barrier before he reached a more open area.

He wormed his way through the stuff, recognizing and avoiding a patch of poison ivy on the way. Lucky thing that he knew what that looked like.

Abruptly, the brush ended. He looked between two large leaves and saw that he was facing a grassy area with a large number of cabbage palms scattered around. He decided to check the area thoroughly before he stepped out, exposing himself to potentially hostile eyes.

He searched the space carefully, seeing nothing. Waiting would not get him a drink. He started forward, then jerked and retreated to better cover.

There was movement on the far side of the open space. He watched intently. It was a…a woman. She was running generally in his direction, followed closely by a man. The man had gray hair and was having difficulty keeping up with the woman. She looked much younger, and she was able to run much more quickly. The old guy was limping slightly and she was stopping to look back at him, motioning impatiently for him to hurry.

Logan was paralyzed by the sight. The two were wearing clothes, but not made of cloth. They must be wearing animal hide clothing. And, the man was carrying what looked like a handful of slender spears. It was like a scene out of some movie about prehistoric times.

He watched, fascinated. About half-way across the space, the old man stumbled and fell. The girl, for that was what Logan now thought, turned, ran back, and grabbed his arm, tugging. While she tried to help him recover, there was a shout from the far side of the field. The two, turned to look. Then the old man said something and motioned to the girl to continue running.

It was obvious that she didn’t want to leave him. She said something back, and he turned to shove her. She walked a few steps, looked back, and then began to run as he motioned again.

There was a sudden chorus of cries from the distance. They sounded like a pack of hounds on the trail of prey, but the noises were obviously of human origin. Then Logan could see a group of men running directly towards the old man.

The old guy had moved behind a cabbage palm, but the others knew where he was. They slowed, then spread out as they got close. They, too, were carrying spears. With a lightening-like throw, the old man let one of his missiles fly. Somehow it separated, leaving a stick still in his hand.

The light spear flew much farther than Logan had thought it would. It was well-aimed, too. It caught one of the pursuers right in the chest. The man cried out and fell on his back, disappearing in the grass. Logan could still see the end of the spear shaft pointing straight towards the sky.

The other pursuers let out cries of anger, and threw their own spears back. The old man had retreated behind the cabbage palm, though, and the spears flew past his position, and stuck in the ground.

He grabbed one of the nearest ones, fitted it to the stick he held and hurled it back. That one missed.

Logan was so fascinated, that he’d forgotten about the girl. When he remembered her, she was just darting into the tree-line about two hundred yards to his left.

He jerked his head back towards the fight. There had been a triumphant scream.

One of the pursuing men had struck the old man with a spear. It was now sticking completely through his left thigh. That didn’t stop him, however. He calmly threw another spear right back at the group, hitting another man in the stomach. That man sat down in the grass.

Logan now was beginning to realize that this was real and it was serious. Those guys weren’t playing. He was watching a real-life battle, one that the older man wasn’t going to win.

The group of men had spread out so that the cabbage palm no longer offered shelter. The old guy threw one more spear, but his leg prevented him from launching it with the same speed. It wobbled, missing its target.

Then from both sides, spears arched in, striking the old man in the chest and abdomen. He dropped to his knees, tugging at the one in his chest. The pursuers dashed up, to stand jeering at the old man.

He struggled to his feet waving what was surely some kind of knife. One of the others thrust a spear into his back and he dropped to his hands and knees with a cry. Another man caught the long gray hair, yanked the old man’s head up and slashed his throat. Logan could see the red gout of blood.

Meanwhile, two of the others had taken off along the path that the girl had taken. The rest of the men stood in a loose group, watching the old man bleed out.

Logan suddenly realized that he was probably in a lot of danger. Those guys meant business and their spears were pretty lethal, too. He drew back farther into the heavy undergrowth, then turned and headed away from the point where the girl had entered the tree-line. He wanted no part of the fight, and, besides, he didn’t know her.

To give him some credit, he did think momentarily about trying to help her, but his thinking didn’t get beyond the fact that he only had a knife while the pursuers had spears that they could hurl improbably far. He couldn’t see how he could help. Maybe she had enough of a head-start that she could escape. She was a fast runner. The only way the pursuing group had caught the two was due to the old man playing out.

Some time later, he crawled into a thicket to catch his breath. He couldn’t hear anything from the pursuing men. They could be anywhere as far as he could tell. He didn’t think they’d caught the girl. They would have set up a ruckus if they had.

The men hadn’t seemed worried about any saber-tooth cats. Maybe being in a group with those spear-throwing things was enough protection. Logan didn’t know and didn’t care. He now had one driving purpose: to get a drink. His thirst had increased exponentially as the sun rose, and as he exerted himself, fleeing the violent scene.

He had traveled maybe a couple of miles, and felt fairly sure the bad guys wouldn’t catch him. They were probably chasing the girl towards the coast.

He’d started thinking of the pursuers as the ‘bad guys’, since they had killed the old man, and were chasing the girl. She’d looked like she was near his age, and he automatically took her side.

He moved through the thicket to a vantage point where he could look out over the grass-covered area again. The cabbage palms had thinned out, to be replaced by a stand of reeds. That looked like it might be a place to get a drink. He stayed low, scuttling from one bush to another through the tall grass.

Finally, he arrived at a point where the ground started to get mushy. He was moving through vegetation-covered muck. The reeds were thinner to the north, so he headed in that direction, finally coming out onto a sandy shore that fronted a small creek. The creek wound through the reeds in such a manner that he couldn’t see very far either up or down its length.

He hesitated at the verge of the grass, wondering if there would be any disease in the water, but then his thirst drove him onward. He moved over the sand, kneeling at the water to scoop some up in his hand. It tasted heavenly. He slurped several handfuls, then bent down closer with the intent of sucking water directly from the surface.

As he bent down, he suddenly realized that there was a large shadow under the surface. It hadn’t been there previously. It also had two protruding eyes that were watching him. They started to move towards him, and he jumped to his feet and backed rapidly away. The alligator broke the surface with a splash, hissing in frustration at missing its prey. The thing was probably over a thousand pounds, being nearly fourteen feet in length.

Logan had lived in Florida all of his life and he knew a little about gators. This was the largest one he’d ever seen. Even larger than the biggest one at Gatorland Zoo, an Orlando tourist attraction that he’d been to a couple of times. He jumped to the side and ran as the creature lunged out of the water. It could strike very quickly, but couldn’t follow at top speed for a long distance.

Back in the thicket, Logan caught his breath. This was turning out to be an awful day. He considered. He’d nearly gotten eaten last night, then speared, and now nearly eaten again. At this rate, he’d be toast before more than another couple of days had passed. He’d have to be more circumspect. This place was dangerous.

A dry buzzing caught his attention. He froze, looking around. There it was: a rattlesnake. Big and mean, it was coiled a few feet away. Before it decided to move towards him, he was out of the thicket and heading back towards the taller trees.

Nighttime found him in a tree near a small, water-filled sinkhole. There were some cattails in the water and he’d grubbed out some of their tuber-like roots to fill the void in his stomach. The night was hot, humid, and still and somehow the local mosquitoes had located him, even though he was high in the branches. They hadn’t found him the night before, but now he was on the menu and it looked like they were determined to keep him awake all night despite his use of a broken, leafy branch to swish them away.

The moon rose, illuminating a quiet scene. The mosquitoes had given up about six hours after dark, and Logan was now trying to sleep while holding onto the narrow branches of his perch. He’d gotten used to the night sounds — the raucous frogs, the grunting of gators off in a hole somewhere. He sat up twice, eyes wide, listening when the distant screaming call of a large cat echoed through the trees. Sleeping in a tree wasn’t his idea of an ideal situation, but at least it was relatively secure.

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