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He knelt before the small bush and smiled. The drops of blood on the leaf told him everything; the long-eared leaf eater was wounded and had fled this way. He stood and shook himself, then scratched at some fleas that were troubling him. The leaf eater could not go far, not wounded as it was. And its trail of blood would make it easy to find. He picked up his spear, which still bore the blood of his prey, and continued his pursuit. They would eat tonight, he thought as he forced his way through the undergrowth, and he shivered with pleasure. That wasn't always the case, no matter how diligent the hunters. As he walked deeper into the forest, following the drops of blood glistening in the sunlight, he wondered if the leaf eater was trying to return to its burrow. Better if it did; he could then mark it to harvest later.
Then he heard a roar of rage, followed by a squeal of pain. Another predator was in the area and he immediately crouched in the underbrush. The sound had come from his right, upwind. In all likelihood the other meat eater wasn't aware of his presence, being more concerned with its own hunt. But the blood trail led in the same direction. Then the wind brought him the smell of the other hunter, a smell he recognized immediately. A long claw. If he were with his clan, he would continue his search. But alone, he was no match for the creature. Still he forced himself forward, hoping he would find his own prey before meeting his fellow hunter.
But he was not to be fortunate this day. He found them in a small clearing. Hiding behind a tree, he watched as the long claw happily ate the long-eared leaf eater. Thesame prey he had wounded. Moving slowly, he backed away, hoping its feeding would keep the predator occupied. Only when he had made his way back through the underbrush and into a clearing did he stand and begin running in the other direction through the more spacious forest. His stomach growled in protest as he now suspected this hunt was going to end in failure.
The sky was darkening when he finally reached his cave. He had come across no other prey and could only hope that others of his clan had been more successful. But even that hope died as he entered. There were no voices, no cooking fires lit. The furs, bones, weapons and gourds: everything was gone. He concentrated, but could see or hear or smell no signs of danger. Had they been attacked, perhaps by another clan? But in the fading light, he could see nothing that suggested any battle. It was more as if his clan had never been there.
He crouched down at the mouth of the cave and looked at the ground. And shivered. Again there were no signs of his people or others, just an occasional animal spore, and none were of dangerous predators. Had he become lost, gone to the wrong cave? He was certain he hadn't, but his eyes said otherwise. He sighed. It was almost nightfall and there was no other place safe but this cave. Tomorrow he would search for them but tonight he would stay here and try to build a fire.
The clan kept firewood in the back chamber. He went there but found the chamber, like the cave itself, empty, and again there was no suggestion the caves had ever been occupied. But there was something different. Instead of ending in a solid rock wall, the chamber ended in a narrow tunnel that led farther into the mountain. He approached it cautiously. In the darkness, he could see a dim glow, as if there was another cave at the end of the tunnel.
He didn't know where this tunnel had come from, if this was indeed his cave. If it was, perhaps his clan had followed it. Or perhaps an enemy had used it to attack. Either way, he was going to find out. Holding his spear before him, he started through the narrow tunnel.
• • •
"This is bullshit!"
Robert Winstead sat quietly at his desk and studied his guest. Reactions of those who were brought to Westchester Station varied from abject fear to righteous outrage. It was one of his responsibilities as station master to make them more comfortable during their stay. "I totally understand," he said, keeping his voice soft and calm. "I felt much the same way myself when I was first brought here."
"Brought here?" Jeanne Gannon shook her head furiously. Her hair, still wet from the Seattle rain she had so recently left, sent out a fine spray. "I was kidnapped! I want the police. Now!"
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk. "'Kidnapped' may be overstating your complaint. We have our own security force. You should be safe here."
"Here? Just where the hell is here? And who the hell are you?"
"This is Westchester Station. As I said, I am Robert Winstead, the station master."
Gannon glared at the man. She guessed him to be in his late 50's, with graying short hair and mustache, wearing a nondescript white shirt and tie. Suited him, she decided, as he was nondescript as well. Then she looked around the room. "I'm supposed to be in the Seattle bus station. This is no bus station!"
"Quite true. Although a bus has occasionally visited, we are a train station."
"I've been kidnapped," she said with finality and crossed her arms, staring defiantly at him. "And you've kidnapped me."
No, WestchesterStation has. "Let me try to explain. Westchester Station is a train station. An intertime nsional train station." He pointed at the skylights overhead. In one, the night sky held a full moon, while in another the moon was waning. The Southern Cross was visible in a third.
She gave the display a quick glance. "Pretty painting. What's your point?"
Copyright © 2004 Patrick Welch