Author's Note: 'Poliana' actually goes between 'The Journey' and 'The Colony', with scenes used from the latter during the rescue of the apes at the cave. There eventually will be a fourth story placed in Ape City about Zaius' return and the spies from Free Port Hold who live there.
Originally published in 'Of Dreams and Schemes #25, The Final Frontier', May 2010.
Dragonlots aka Dana Bell
"At least not all our holidays were forgotten," Taylor commented absently. He glanced over at Nova where she sat in a bundle of blankets nursing their son. She smiled at him, a look of pride in her brown eyes.
He returned his attention to the collection of ornaments in the corner of their dwelling. He gently placed the star one the woodcarvers had designed for on the pile.
"You won't see these in Better Homes and Garden."
"What?" Nova asked puzzled.
He started, still not used to his wife talking. She'd been attending special classes at the local school. One of the teachers, Megan, had discovered Nova couldn't talk and had volunteered to work with her.
"Just a magazine from my time about decorating your home."
She frowned not completely understanding. Her vocabulary was still somewhat child-like.
"Not important," he reassured her. He rubbed his hands together. "It's getting cold. Think I'll light a fire." Kneeling he used tongs to gingerly pick up the live coal from its place in the bowl and placed it in among the already piled wood. The old fireplace still worked and he was grateful for that. He waited for the fire to catch before he stepped away.
Nova nodded and he grabbed a large copper kettle settling it on the swing arm and placing it over the growing flames. They'd have stew for dinner, but for now, he handed her some bread and cheese. She nibbled her food while their baby finished his meal.
Taylor sat in another chair, absently munching his bread. Much had happened in the time they'd been here. When they'd left Free Port Hold he'd known Nova was pregnant. He just hoped she wouldn't loose the baby over the long trip to find the large human colony he'd heard was located somewhere in the west. He'd had a map hand drawn by Zac, plus an ancient compass he'd pilfered from the Archives.
Not being sure how long the journey would take, he'd asked for and received four horses, one for him to ride, one for Nova and two to pack supplies. The Council had more than generous giving him as much as the animals could carry.
The old chimpanzee elder had seen him off. "You are more than welcome to stay," he reassured the human.
"No offense, but I've had my fill of apes." He mounted the horse and stared down at the simian. "Rather take my chances in the wilds with my own kind."
"I quite understand." No argument, more like resignation. "You take knowledge with you we would have liked for you to have shared."
"You have better records than those in Ape City. I'm sure you'll figure it out, if you haven't already."
The chimp had chuckled. "Oh, we know much." He raised a hairy arm in farewell. "Good luck, Taylor. May God watch over you."
His last words startled the human. He'd never been a believing man, preferring to have faith in only himself. Yet the simple gesture touched him. "Thanks."
They rode out of Free Port and into the heat of the desert. The superior horses served them well, their long legs with lighter bones and larger hooves seeming to glide over the sands. He lost track of the days gauging their progress by the slow swelling of Nova's belly.
When they reached the now dry banks of the Great Lakes their supplies had began to run out. He took to trapping small animals and Nova proved to have good instincts about roots and various berries they could eat. At one point, he was certain they were crossing the Mississippi though the now-trickling creek didn't compare with the wide river of his day.
He took advantage of the fresh water and filled their canteens, allowing the horses to drink. The astronaut had even bathed, playfully pulling Nova into the clear liquid. She wasn't sure about his intentions but at least they'd both smelled better afterward.
Their trip across the country continued. Much of the geography he'd studied in school was obsolete and only helpful to him as a general reference. The rolling plains of Nebraska were gone, replaced by stark deserts and giant cactus. They had to pick their way carefully as oversized rattlers tended to pop out unexpectedly from cracks or under rocks.
It was there Nova had had her baby. One of the doctors in Free Port Hold had taken the time to explain what Taylor would have to do to deliver his child, just in case they didn't make it to the human settlement in time. Luckily, there were no complications and once his child was settled on his wife's chest, he relaxed, although not too much. He stayed up all night watching for snakes and other predators. He named his son John after his grandfather.
They continued on, crossing over into what he was sure had once been Wyoming. The state was even more bleak now, the sagebrush and antelope replaced by sudden sand storms, hot temperatures, resembling how he remembered the Sahara.
At this point he turned north, using the compass more often than the map. Not that the parchment didn't have it uses. One feature he knew very well and looked forward to passing through were the jagged Tetons and then on into Yellowstone before heading west again. Odd that those natural wonders should have remained when much of the rest of the country had been turned into a wasteland.
When they arrived at what had once been most probably the old road through Teton National Park, he dismounted and gazed at the sheer jutting rock and clear lake. "I came here as a child with my parent's," he told Nova. He rubbed his eyes not wanting to cry. Something of his past remained and it made him both happy and sad.
Continuing on, they passed from one park into the other. The old road was gone, but it seemed animals had made paths. He followed those. Snow began to fall and Taylor worried about getting caught in the mountains and not being able to get out until spring. He didn't know if his son would survive the cold weather. Actually, he didn't know if any off them would. Granted, they had heavy cloaks and thick boots thoughtfully provided by those in Free Port Hold, that that would not be enough.
He was even more concerned about food supplies. The many deserts they'd crossed had left them very little. Water wouldn't be a problem. Melted snow would give them liquid to drink, and, if he remembered correctly, there would be both a river and a lake in Yellowstone.
Trudging on through the worsening weather, he followed his instincts and managed to reach the main geyser basin where Old Faithful should be. With disbelieving eyes he saw the lodge still stood and got his family safely into the aging log structure.
He secured the horses in what had once been the lobby area and took Nova and John into the dining room. Guiding them to the huge stone fireplace he was
momentarily alarmed to find cords of wood neatly stacked along the wall. Self- preservation took over and he piled the wood and got a fire going.
After making sure his wife and son were comfortable under a pile of buffalo skins he found close to the stone fireplace, he quickly searched the lower floor of the building. The restrooms and showers were still there, though they didn't work. Locating the kitchen, he discovered someone had left a large store of dried meat, and other foods in the large freezer. He helped himself and took food back to his wife.
They ate in silence as the wood crackled and sizzled and fell asleep in its warmth. When morning came, Taylor had awoke before Nova and had got to see the tail end of Old Faithful's sputtering eruption through the large windows which miraculously were still intact.
For breakfast they had some mushy wheat like stuff. When he finished, he went to check on the horses as Nova nursed their son. The animals were fine, though hungry and later in the day he found hay in a side room. He brought it to them and left again. When he'd glanced back, the horses were munching contentedly.
Returning to Nova and John, Taylor burrowed under the heavy skins. "Not sure who left all this stuff. Hopefully, they won't mind us using it."
Days tumbled on and Taylor knew they'd have to winter there. The snow was so deep the drifts piled under the windows. He kept an eye on their supplies, not really didn't want to have to go hunting.
Mysterious as their unknown benefactors were, they passed the winter undisturbed. No visitors appeared to ask why they were there or demand they leave. With the coming of spring, Taylor again packed up the horses and they continued on, taking seemingly a well-traveled path out of the park north and then west, out of the park and into what had once been southern Idaho.
The land turned to desert again. Following the old remains of highways, Taylor navigated them north once again, through mountains and finally into the valley where the human colony was indicated on his map. Two rivers met there and continued the journey to the Pacific. On the long dirt road beside the big river, he saw many farms and people waved to him from fields just beginning to turn green.
A reception comity had met him at the entrance of the town. It was led by a very old woman draped in a patched shawl, and a colorfully dressed black man who introduced himself as Andrew. He later learned the woman was the patroness, respected for her knowledge and wisdom.
"We've been waiting for you," Andrew told him.
"Can't really say the same," Taylor had responded.
Andrew laughed, a deep rich sound. "We've had reports since you left Yellowstone. Our hunters arrived to discover some of their supplies had been used."
"We didn't mean-"
The man raised his hand. "It is quite alright. They are left for that reason. I am glad you found our place to spend the winter. If you had been caught in the mountains, you would not be here now."
Taylor didn't doubt that. "Thanks." He paused, not sure how to ask. "We'd like to join your colony."
Andrew turned to the patroness. "We have a request," he informed her formally. She slowly came forward, her old eyes staring up into Taylor's. Her gaze drifted to Nova and the child she held. With a slow nod she ambled away attended by two younger women.
"Welcome," Andrew greeted. "Come. We have a number of homes I'm sure will be your liking."
They got a tour of the town. There was a blacksmith, where he'd left the horses until they found a house; a working grain mill; several storage sheds; and a ferry dock with several barges. Taylor asked about that.
"Oh. We trade with several other settlements down the great river. We farm here. Farther down there is a community that grows fruit and another with excellent hunters. It works well for all concerned."
"What do you call your settlement?" He took his son from Nova. She wanted to look at a large skin hung from a pole.
Taylor then noticed a few older buildings which might have been from his time. "Any idea what it was originally called?"
"Most of the records had been destroyed, so no, not really."
"Nova," Taylor gently called. She stopped looking and rejoined him. He bounced his son slightly and listened to the gurgling giggles, enjoying the sound.
"What houses would you like us to look at?"
Andrew led them to a section of town up higher on the hill. Some seemed to be homes from his time while others were newer and crudely built. "I think perhaps this one you will like." He pushed open a door. "There's a fenced yard, for your horses."
Taylor went inside checking out the layout. It was a simple ranch style with a fireplace. The appliances were gone, but he doubted they would have worked anyway. There was evidence of past occupants, but it didn't seem to be very dirty.
"Yeah. I think this will do."
"Fine. We have a warehouse full of supplies near the river. When you are ready, come and take what you need."
"No payment?" He was used to money.
"You will work in the fields or some other job to help us all. We share what we have."
"Good day to you." He bowed slightly and left them alone.
"Welcome to your new home, Nova." Taylor hugged her to him. She smiled and he kissed her. "Let's find a room for our son and then I'll go see what I can find to furnish our house."
He left her and John napping on the floor in a back bedroom and walked back into town. Everyone he met greeted him and spent several minutes talking, introducing themselves and welcoming him to Poliania. Overwhelmed with their friendliness he didn't really know what to make of it.
Taylor had been a city kid used to be ignored by everyone. He'd heard about small towns, but never had the experience of living in one. Now, he guessed, he would.
The warehouse proved to be easy to find. A youngster with a broken leg sat at the hide-covered door.
"Hi," the boy said with a huge smile. His large brown eyes sparkled and he seemed unconcerned about his simple dirty tunic.
"Yeah. How'd you know?"
"Everyone's talking about you. I'm Brian. Whatcha' need today?"
"Have no idea. Mind if I just look around."
"Go ahead. Oh, you might want to know that the summers are really hot here, while the winters are cold and snowy. Just before harvest there'll be trade for skins and dried meat."
"Thanks." He went into the large brick building. There were piles of cloth along one side, a few skins stacked in a corner, good sized kettles, crude utensils, and a few items he wasn't really sure what they for. Puzzled he went back outside.
"You know, I could use some help figuring out what I'll need."
The boy grinned. He had a couple of front teeth missing and his face was smudged with dirt. "Sure!" He grabbed his crutches someone had obviously carved for him and hobbled inside.
Inside of what Taylor assumed was probably a half an hour, the boy had helped him picked out what was considered 'basic' supplies. He piled them near the door and decided to get the horses to bring the stuff home. There were kettles, utensils, several hides, some cloth and objects Brian had told him were gardening tools.
"These be okay here?"
Brian seemed surprised. "Sure. No one will take 'em if I say there're for you."
"Thanks." He started to leave then explained. "It was different in my time."
"Like to hear about that some time."
"See what I can do."
"If you don't understand what they're for, ask Gilly. She lives in the big funny house across the street." He'd blushed. "She's my sister."
"Live in that house do you?"
"Yeah. Since my folks died of the fever last year."
Taylor had felt sorry for the boy. He seemed so young to be orphaned. At least he had someone to look after him.
Returning to the blacksmith he collected his horses, backed his supplies on their backs and returned to his new home. Nova was still asleep on the floor with John cuddled against her breast. He closed the door, which creaked slightly. "Have to fix that," he mumbled.
It didn't take him long to put the supplies away. The skins they could sleep on. Some of the fabric would provide them with new clothes. He put the kettle near the fireplace and put the rest in what had once been a laundry room. He could tell by the hook ups.
Their first meal in the house had been some simple potato soup. But after the fair of dried meats, raw vegetables and mushed wheat, it was like a banquet.
The ex-astronaut found work on the barges. He stayed on the bobbing boats while in port, leaving the trade deals to those who knew the natives best. At first, he'd been nervous about leaving Nova alone for several days at a time, but Gilly proved to be a wonderful friend and helped out when he was gone.
"Now don't you worry about a thing," she'd said to him. "Nova is a wonderful mother and see, she's picked up the knack for cooking with the pot. If there's trouble, I'm close by."
The two women bonded, working together side by side as Gilly taught Nova how to plant and tend a garden, and other tasks she'd need to know. The fact Nova didn't talk never bothered Gilly as she was quiet, too. Silence didn't seem to be a barrier. Actions and smiles seemed to do the trick.
Taylor's mind returned to the present.
He smiled at his wife. "I'll put John to bed for you."
Nova relinquished their son and he put the fast-growing boy into the cradle one of woodcarvers had made as a welcoming gift. Taylor still had a hard time with the generosity of the people. He tucked the hand-quilted blanket under the boy's chin and quietly closed the door.
He found Nova stirring their dinner. She still nibbled on her bread and hummed a tune he hadn't heard before. "Gilly teach you that?"
"Help baby sleep."
Chuckling, he sat down. "Boss wants me to make the last trade run before the river ices up."
Her head turned to him. "Want to go?"
"He promised I'd only be gone a few days."
"No answer." She rose and went to counter where she'd started bread rising earlier. Her hands plunged into the dough and shaped it for the pot that would sit in the ashes and cook.
"You're right. That wasn't an answer." He sighed. "I don't know."
"Truth." Nova carried the pot and placed it with care in the fireplace.
"Gilly taught you more than how to hum."
"Yes. She is." Gilly and her brother would be joining them for dinner. Their neighbor had promised she'd bring a pie and vegetables for a salad. He made a face. After his stay in Ape City and their long journey, he didn't care if he ever saw fruit or vegetables again.
His wife shivered. "Nova, your shawl," he reminded her. She wasn't used to the cold weather. All she'd known her entire life was a warm and humid climate.
"Yeah. I know."
She went and fetched it from their bedroom, wrapping it around her shoulders. At least she wore sensible clothes. She'd adopted the pants and long tunic many of the local women wore during the cold weather.
"Go trade?" Her brown eyes held a frightened look.
"We'll see." He pulled her down onto his lap and held her close. Who would have thought he would fall so deeply in love with her? He wanted nothing more than to protect her and John for the rest of his life.
The last trade run of the season went well and provided the town with several barrels of dried meat for the long winter. Taylor took his share home and Nova placed it the old laundry room, now their pantry.
"Doesn't look my mother's," he commented when he stuck his head in. On the shelves were clay jars full of fruit or vegetables Nova and Gilly had spent part of the fall putting up. The dried meat was stacked neatly in a wooden container and there were several bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling to dry.
He turned to Nova. "You've learned a lot."
"Gilly teach good." She offered him a smile. Slowly her hands touched her belly. "New baby in summer."
"What?" He couldn't believe what she'd just told him. "I'm going to be a father again?"
A huge grin split across his tanned face. "That's wonderful!" He grabbed her and spun her around, planting a kiss on her lips. "You make me very happy."
"Good." She pulled away. "Dinner soon ready."
John toddled over to his father and put up his arms. Taylor picked up his son. "And what did you make for my welcome home dinner?" he asked Nova.
"Stew. Bread. Cheese. Pie."
"A feast for a king."
He laughed. "I'll tell you later." Taylor knew he still used phrases she didn't understand. Nor did many of the people in the town. He often had to stop and explain what he meant.
"Brian bring book." She pointed to the table. He hadn't noticed it when he came in.
"Thoughtful of him." He went to the crudely made wooden table and sat down, placing John on his lap. Taylor was surprised to discover the book was a Bible. "Where'd he find this?"
"Hmmm." Carefully he opened the brittle pages to a passage that seemed to have been marked. Gently he pushed John's curious hands away. He didn't want it damaged. "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." (Luke 2: 8 KJV)
Nova frowned at the unfamiliar wording. "No understand."
"It's an old story," he explained. "Dating back thousands of years. Even before my time."
She shrugged. His wife tended to do that. Nova didn't care much about his time. Her concerns were always about now and caring for their son.
He kept reading out loud. It was like hearing the story for the first time and he enjoyed sharing it with his family. For some reason, it spoke to him as never before. Maybe it was just nostalgia. Maybe it was because it gave him hope something of humanity survived the wars and the apes.
Nova placed their food on the table, took John from him, and they ate. He helped her clean up and put things away. Their son tried to help as well and his wife finally placed him on a blanket near the fire with a few of his toys.
While she did that he took the stew outside putting a lid on the pot. Cold night temperatures would help it keep so they could finish it for lunch the next day. He went back inside and played with John until the toddler tired.
"Bed now." Nova took the boy, giving him a brief bath in the water she'd been warming. When she finished, they put John to bed.
"I'll have to get a new bed for John." The boy had almost outgrown the cradle.
"Use for baby."
"Yeah." He drew her close. "I love you."
Her smile meant the world to him. She kissed him and they retired for the evening. His dreams were pleasant and he resented being awakened by loud knocking on the door, sometime before midnight.
"Now who could that be?" he groused as he got up, pulling on his pants and tunic, tossing his heavy cloak on. The house tended to be cold since the fireplace only warmed the main rooms. "Who is it?" he demanded as he opened the door.
"My apologies, Taylor," Andrew greeted him. The black man held a lantern that spilled light into the dark room. "We've intercepted a message sent by carrier hawk to Free Port Hold."
He knew that several of the humans from Free Port Hold had made their home in Poliania and had been very open about where'd they come from. He knew those here had welcomed the settlers, just as he and Nova had been, and wondered what this could be about.
"What was the message?"
"It seems, their new colony is in danger."
"What's happened?" He motioned the other inside and closed the door against the chill air. Moving to the fireplace he tossed in a couple of logs.
He started not sure he'd heard right. "What?"
"The message told of an army out of Ape City. It found the summer site for the colony and possibly the winter caves as well."
"What about the colonists?" His sleep-muddled mind was trying to make sense of what Andrew was saying.
"They escaped, as you said in your time, out the back way, but are without provisions – and winter is coming. We are far closer than Free Port Hold. It would take months for the Hold to get supplies to them."
Taylor motioned to a chair and sat when his guest did. "They want our help." It wasn't a question.
"Yes." Andrew put the lantern on the table Taylor had made.
"Where's the colony?" He had no idea Free Port Hold had managed to establish a colony anywhere out west.
"North east of us. We will have to ride many days past the place of geysers to the land of caves and water. Their location was detailed in the message."
"Now wait a minute," he leaned forward. "Do they have any idea what the mountain passes are like this time of year?"
"I believe I do." Andrew sighed. "According to the message, there are many women and children."
The latter part of Andrew's statement took a moment to register. He should have deduced that, since it was a colony. "I don't like apes."
"I understand, but you should know, the note was signed with some names I've heard you mention."
"Damn it." He got up and poked at the fire. The flames flared and heat slowly filled the chilly room. Taylor had no doubt as to who had written the report. He owed Zira and Cornelius his life, not to mention various family members of theirs.
"How did we intercept the message?" he asked.
"By chance. The hawk flew over the place of geysers to avoid a storm before heading east to Free Port Hold. It must have seen our hunters and decided to land. They saw the message, read it, and in turn sent it to us by one of our own carrier hawks."
Made sense. Some of the humans from Free Port Hold had brought their hawks. "When are you leaving?"
"Not until day after next. It will take some time to pack what we need." The chair creaked as Andrew got up. "We will have to ride hard and long to beat the storms and return before the Winter Celebration."
"I'll be ready."
"I thought as much."
Taylor slowly rose. "Gotten to know me well, have you?"
"Inside, you are a good man."
"I know of people who would doubt that."
"Maybe long ago. Not now."
"I'll look after Nova, don't worry," Gilly reassured him. The two women stood in the door of his home, each holding their cloak tightly closed as he loaded the two horses he was taking.
Nervously he looked up at the sky. Heavy clouds sat on the hills and wind tugged at the tree tops. A light snow had fallen overnight but Andrew decided not to delay their rescue mission.
"I be fine." Nova gave him a brave smile though he could see the tears threatening in her brown eyes. "Be careful." She had their son tucked inside her cloak, only his head stuck out.
"I promise." He made sure the final bag was secure before taking his wife in his arms and giving her a kiss. "I'll be back soon." He kissed his son's forehead. "Daddy will be home soon."
"Better be." Everyday Nova sounded more and more like a wife.
He took the reins of his mount and the pack horse, leading them down the hill to join the rest of the party. There were more than he expected. Each man sensibly wore heavy clothing and thick colorful cloaks.
"Ah, Taylor, good. Now we are ready." Andrew put his foot in the stirrup and mounted, settling in the saddle. "We will ride to the place of the geysers and collect our hunting party. They will provide sledges and heavy furs against the cold."
"Good idea." Taylor guided his horse next to Andrew. "I doubt the wagons would make it over the mountains."
"That was my thought." Casting a curious glance at Taylor, the black man asked, "What were the mountains called in your time?"
"I see." Andrew held up a hand and dropped it in a signal to begin moving.
The party rode at a comfortable pace out of the valley, following the river until it departed in another direction. Curious farmers and their families watched from their homes as they passed. Some waved, others brought more supplies already packed on horses and handed the animals over to them.
"Word has spread," their leader explained to Taylor. "Each will help in any way they can."
"I still can't believe your people are so generous. It wasn't like that in my time."
"Then you are in a better time." White teeth flashed as Andrew offered a warm smile. "We are glad you are with us."
His words warmed Taylor. Every day Poliania became more of a home to him than his apartment in the twentieth century ever had been. "Glad I'm here, too," he heard himself say. He didn't miss the knowing look the black man gave him.
AS they rode to Yellowstone, the weather turned and the sky dropped snow on them. The horses plunged on through the growing drifts. Taylor became more concerned about getting through the mountain passes and said as much to Andrew.
"We will make it," the leader assured him. "There is no other choice."
When the party finally reached Yellowstone, the hunting party was waiting for them. As they dismounted and led the horses to a large side building being used as a stable, Taylor saw a man holding a large, russet-colored bird he thought he recognized.
"Is that Laran?" he asked the man.
The bird partially stretched out her wings in recognition of her name. She leaned forward and lightly nipped his hand with her yellow beak.
"She knows you?" the man asked.
"Long story." Taylor didn't want to go into how he'd first met Laran, not to mention the ape who partnered with the hawk.
The warmth of the main hall was a welcome relief from the bitter cold and wet snow. Buffalo hides had been scattered about on the floor before the huge stone fireplace. A cheery fire crackled and he could smell the tantalizing scent of beef. His stomach growled in response.
"We were expecting you," the man who had Laran explained. He raised his arm and the hawk glided to a high spot. She landed easily on the jutting wall pole and watched them from her perch. "I have no doubt Suzan will be glad to have Laran back."
"Are you from Free Port hold?" Taylor shook out his wet cloak and found a place to hang it so it would dry.
"Once. I joined Poliania years ago. Like you, I came looking for a new home." He too hung his heavy cloak nearby so it would dry and brushed snow from his hide pants.
"So I'm guessing you know Suzan."
"Met her when she first came to us."
"I remember her telling me her people came from another planet."
"Seen their ships. I'm Jacob." He extended his hand, a grin touching his full lips and reaching his blue eyes.
"Taylor." He shook the other's hand.
"Let's get some food and then we can talk. I've heard you're from the past."
"Yeah." He took the offered skewer of meat and potatoes. Taylor glanced around and settled on a spot near the fire but slightly to the side. The furry hide kept the cold of the floor away. He ate some meat and enjoyed the juicy morsel.
It was better than the dried stuff.
"We had a fresh kill the other day." Jacob pointed out the window. "It was wandering around out there."
"Probably trying to keep warm. I seem to remember the rangers telling stories about how the animals stay close to the geysers during the winter months."
"Smart. Perhaps smarter than us." Jacob pulled a potato off and popped it in his mouth. "I know Andrew has discussed many times moving Poliania here."
"Yet they never have."
"No. The growing season is too short and the river offers trade. Not something they could do here."
"The ride would be too long."
"Yes, but the winters wouldn't be as cold."
The two shared a laugh. They finished their meal as the others joined them. Andrew took a place beside Taylor and Jacob, offering a quick prayer before eating. Slowly it got dark and night dropped in. Heat from the fire kept the freezing temperatures out of the high ceiling room.
"So, Taylor," Jacob prompted. "Tell us what it was like here in your time."
"Full of tourists from all over the world."
Andrew shook his head. "That is difficult to fathom. We have yet to make contact with anyone beyond our shores."
"I'm guessing you have no idea what happened in other countries."
"None at all."
"Hmmm." It would be interesting to find out, though Taylor doubted they had any way of discovering their fates of the other countries beyond riding to what had once been Canada or Mexico.
"Please, go on. A story from your time would make an interesting diversion before we sleep."
Pops and sizzling filled the room and he could just barely hear the howling wind outside. "Yeah, I guess so."
Dawn's first light found them already on the trail out of Yellowstone. Taylor thought he recognized the path they were following as perhaps one of the figure- eight roads of the park, but he was hard pressed to see if any of the asphalt was left. With interest, he surveyed the tall pines of the park and grinned at the colorful steaming spots. He even saw one of the geysers erupt, sending cascades of scalding water into the air. The steam it caused temporarily obscured his vision, and he thought he heard Laran screech from somewhere above them.
When they finally reached the winding track down into what he knew was Mammoth Hot Springs, his horse tensed. He glanced over around and saw gray shadows disappear into the thick underbrush.
"Wolves." Jacob reined in his horse beside Taylor. "They won't bother us."
"I don't remember there being wolves in Yellowstone."
"We found some records that said the wolves were reintroduced."
"Bet that went over well, especially with the ranchers."
"I don't know. Most of what we saw just talked about the packs and their numbers."
"Must have happened after I left. I'm surprised the space plague didn't kill them off."
"We'll never know why. Lost too much of the history after the war."
Taylor urged his horse forward and the journey downward continued. Snow flew thickly and he marveled they didn't lose any of the horses, sledges or people. At the bottom, they took shelter in a cave he vaguely recalled was there, but had been closed to people for a long, long time in his era.
Faint drips reached his ears as did the whinnies of the tired horses. Laran sailed over his head and claimed a perch on a reddish stalagmite. He briefly envied her until he saw her shake her huge wings and began to preen her wet feathers.
There wasn't much conversation as they ate dried meat and grains. Each man curled under the warmth of his cloak and soon silence reigned as they slept.
Taylor took the first watch. He sat near the entrance as the wind whipped outside. He could hear the tree tops snap and groan. A few flakes intruded into their safe haven, swirling just inside. Not that he could see much beyond the lantern glow. It was darker than he ever remembered the park being.
Too bad it's snowing, he thought to himself. The stars would be beautiful.
He wasn't sure when the next man took watch, but he was grateful to get away and sleep. Morning would come soon enough, and they would have to ride through more snow and cold wind. Taylor just hoped it was worth the gamble they were taking and the time he had to spend away from Nova, John and their unborn child.
"We will be there tomorrow," Andrew told Taylor as they trudged through the heavy snow.
The rescue party was several days out of Yellowstone. They'd awakened to a dreadful storm that morning and many had been forced to dig the sledges out. Even Laran had refused to take to the skies, preferring to sit on Jacob's saddle horn. He tried to shelter the bird partially under his cloak.
"Want me to take her for awhile?" Taylor offered.
"No. She's warm." Jacob tried to smile. It came out more as a grimace.
"Most women are," the ex-astronaut bantered back.
"I'm sure you miss your wife and son."
"Yeah, I just hope we don't end up having to spend the winter with the apes."
"Andrew will get us back."
"So he keeps saying."
Through the heavey snow, Taylor made out Andrew, who was leading the party, hold up his hand. The ex-astronaut reined in his horse who pulled its head up and from its nose puffed warm air into the cold.
"Problem?" Jacob voiced Taylor's thought.
"Hard to say. I'll go see." He handed the reins of the pack horses over to Jacob and lightly kicked his mount. It moved forward until Taylor was beside Andrew. "What's going on?"
"Wild reptoids." The black man pointed to several figures moving across the snow covered plain. "They can't scent us in this wind fortunately."
Taylor squinted, his eyes trying to see what they were dragging. It was dark, possibly furred and leaving a trail of red on the white. "Looks like they've been hunting."
"Quite possibly. We need to keep moving." Andrew edged his horse to angle away from the reptoids.
Taylor rode back and rejoined Jacob, awkwardly tying the reins of the pack horses to his saddle with cold fingers.
"What was the problem?" his new friend asked.
The other shuddered and Laran voiced her protest. "Easy," Jacob soothed, lightly running a finger down her head and neck. "No need to get alarmed."
The next day put them in a canyon tucked between large ancient lava flows. Taylor was glad the igneous walls blocked the bitter cold wind which had plagued them for much of their journey. It was difficult going, since it angled down with unexpected up or down thrusts, hidden under layers of snow and ice. Luckily, it was large enough to accommodate the sledges. Taylor didn't want to think how they might have had to overburden the horses to bring the apes their supplies.
Laran screamed from her place on Jacob's saddle and launched herself into the air. She circled the rescue party once and disappeared behind a jutting outcrop.
"Probably hungry," Jacob said. "It's been several days since she hunted."
"Maybe she just needed to stretch her wings after being scrunched up next to you."
The other man fondly rubbed his chest where she'd spent so much time. "Miss her warmth."
They shared a laugh as the canyon ended and they found themselves in a wide valley. Laran cried out again and was answered by the unmistakable sound of an echoing whine.
"We found them," Taylor excitedly said as he urged his horse forward. He managed to stop beside Andrew. The two men unloaded some of their supplies, floundering through the deep snow to a hidden crevasse in the hillside. He stopped just inside as several apes turned surprised looks in their direction.
Pushing back the hood of cloak, Taylor said, "We intercepted you message to Free Port Hold. They were too far away to help; we are closer." He smiled at several apes he'd known from before.
Andrew joined him. "I am Andrew, leader of our people."
Suzan got up and smiled. "I'm glad to meet you. Our Elder is no longer with us. I'm one of those who have been leading our colony. Hello, Taylor."
"We brought supplies." Andrew dumped his load on the cave floor. "Is there any way we can assist you beyond simple sustenance?"
"As a matter of fact, yes."
Before Suzan could explain Zira rushed forward followed by Turk and Zaius, and gave Taylor a warm hug. She stepped back and glanced around. "Where's Nova?"
"She's at home with our son John."
"I'd hoped you died in the Forbidden Zone." Zaius glared at him.
"Good to see you too, Dr. Zaius, although, you're a long way from home."
He couldn't keep the mocking tone out of his voice.
"You should be dead," the orangutan muttered before shivering and retreating to the fire.
"My brother's just angry." Usina joined them. "He came with the army. They were killed by reptoids on the other the other side of the ridge."
He wondered if the dark hairy form he'd seen had been a dead gorilla. "Doesn't sound like a good way for an ape to die."
"It wasn't," Suzan answered quietly.
Taylor was sure there had to be more to the story, but sensed it wasn't a good time to ask. "I need to help unload the horses."
"I'll help too." Turk handed a small child to Usina. Corneilus, Zac and several other males pitched in and soon the horses were unloaded and sheltered in the cave.
Afterward, Andrew, Jacob and Taylor sat with the leaders of the Colony enjoying a hearty vegetable soup and bread.
"How long have you been here?" Andrew asked as he finished his soup.
"A week." Zac chewed on his bread. "We had no hope of help before spring."
Zauis surveyed them with an angry scowl and turned away so he couldn't see the humans.
"What are you going to do with him?" Taylor pointed at Zaius with his chin.
"My brother can stay with us." Usina rocked one of her children, who was sleeping in her arms.
"Or not," Turk added. "His fate is his own decision."
The group from Poliania had to stay in the cave for several days as a fierce blizzard kept them trapped. When it finally broke, the colony and their rescuers woke up to a beautiful sunshiny day.
Taylor and the others helped the apes pack up the sledges and horses. The apes guided the party through the canyon and skirted around the hill until they reached the caves where the apes wintered. The supplies stored there were scattered everywhere, ruined by rain and snow.
"Cozy," he said.
"We like it," Zac replied with a grin.
It took the rest of the day to get the apes settled back in their home and the rescue party stayed one more night, sharing in the celebration feast. When morning came, they busied themselves saddling the horses. They would leave the sledges. The apes would find good use for the wood. The new leaders of the colony stood near them, wrapped in warm cloaks.
"Thank you again," Suzan told them, "for all your help."
"It was a great pleasure. We hope, as time progresses, that you will honor us with trade." Andrew bowled slightly, the breeze catching the man's indigo cloak.
Suzan warmly replied, "I'm sure we will."
Andrew and Taylor mounted their horses. The black man glanced over his shoulder to see if the rest of the party was ready to leave.
"What are you going to do with Zaius?" Taylor pried.
The group looked uneasily at each other.
"We haven't decided," Usina glanced at the ground.
Taylor recalled he'd seen her arguing with her husband late the previous night. He hoped her brother hadn't caused too much of a problem between her and her mate.
He had to at least warn them and hoped they listened. The future of their colony and Poliania was at stake. "What he knows is dangerous."
Suzan nodded. "We know Taylor."
Andrew turned his horse and trotted to the head of party heading out. It was time to leave. Taylor said his farewells. "Be seeing you soon." He leaned down toward Zira and Cornelius. "I'll have a new child in the spring. You should visit."
He couldn't read Zira's blush or Cornelius' happy smile. He hoped it was for him. Giving them a final wave, he rejoined Jacob, who handed him the reins of the pack animals.
"You miss them?" Jacob wanted to know.
"In a way. They saved my life."
Laran soared overhead, dipped her wings and cried out, before circling back toward the caves.
Taylor grinned at his friend. "I think she just told you goodbye."
"Going to miss her," his friend said, rubbing his chest.
It took several days to return to Yellowstone. Taylor feared they might have to winter in the log lodge, but the weather held. After the horses had been fed, they spent one last night in the park before heading out in the morning.
Jacob stood beside him as he finished saddling his horse. "I'm going to miss you, my friend."
"And I you."
The other man smiled at Taylor. "But I will be in Poliania when the snows stop in the spring."
"I'll look forward to seeing you." Taylor put his foot in the stirrup and got onto his saddle. "I should have a new child to show off."
"You are a lucky man." Jacob took a few steps back.
Andrew motioned the party forward and they began the trip home. although the clouds blackened many times, the storms seemed to pass on to the east.
As they took the final leg of their journey, many riders dropped off horses to the various farms along the road to Poliania. At the town's entrance, they were met by friends and family and Taylor was delighted Nova and John were there to greet him. He hugged them both fiercely and went home.
The next day was the Winter Celebration. Taylor woke early, wishing briefly, the tradition of Santa Claus had remained, However, given the time, maybe it was better some of the old customs had ceased. A small evergreen, which Nova said Gilly had brought over, stood in the corner, bedecked with the ornaments he'd collected. The hand-carved star graced the top and strings of popcorn and nuts encircled the small tree. It was enough.
Gilly came over early to help Nova with making the pies and bread, so Taylor had the duty of watching the meat and keeping the boys out of trouble. Brian had a new cloak, something Taylor guessed his sister must have given the boy as a gift.
"How were things in the new ape colony?" Gilly asked as she stirred cherries for the pie.
"They were happy to be home."
His mind flashed to Zaius even as he shook his head. "Nothing we need to worry about."
As the sun set, the group sat down to eat. Gilly took Brian's hand, and so forth around the table. The woman bowed her head. "Thank you for food, God. And for blessing your children. Amen."
"Amen," Taylor echoed. He was thankful and he rose to cut the meat. He paused just before making the first slice, suddenly aware of how much his life had changed. He now had so many dear to him. His wife, his son, Gilly, Brian, Andrew, Jacob, and even the apes who had befriended and helped him.
He knew he might not believe in God, but he had to admit some unknown force had changed his life for the better. And in the spring, he'd have yet another reason to be thankful.
In his mind he said thank you, just in case, and cut the meat.