It took a purring of his stomach to roll Mick Hancock out of sleep. The sleeping hut’s ceiling of thatch over a vaulted framework greeted his eyes after they adjusted to the darkness. With a yawn he heaved his chest off the bed’s leather surface, rocking his tousled blond hair. As much as Mick appreciated all the Azenyan people’s hospitality, their curved wooden headrests did not make for comfortable sleeping.
At least Mick didn’t think so. Nothembi was still sound asleep, humming lullabies to herself, with her thick bushy hair like a pillow on her own headrest. Moonlight drifted from the hut’s entrance to gloss her dark, svelte figure like polished ebony. From her necklace gleamed an ivory star amulet shaped like Mick’s old sheriff’s badge, a symbol of their matrimonial bond. She was the last person in the world he wanted to wake up.
Again his stomach rumbled. Slipping out of bed, careful not to ruffle its leopard-hide sheet so Nothembi could hear, he scanned the hut interior for pots and bowls that would have food inside. Plenty had ground sorghum, vegetables, and other ingredients that Nothembi could fashion together into scrumptious meals. But not even the pantry carried completed foods. If only Mick’s mother had taught him to cook his own recipes!
But he did know how to roast meat over a fire. There was no meat, not even salted, inside the hut. He would have to get that on his own.
So it was back to the bush tonight.
After putting on his black leather trenchcoat and cowboy’s hat, Mick fetched his rifle and revolver and sneaked out of the hut. The crescent moon had almost nudged down from its zenith amidst the stars overhead. Except for the chirping of crickets and hoots of nocturnal birds, the village of beehive huts stayed still and silent, with no torches or cooking fires flickering. Even the cattle in the central paddock had bedded down on all fours. Mick tiptoed to the gate in the village’s brushwood fence and climbed it halfway up before jumping over the top. The descent hurt his knees for a second, but voicing pain would disturb his neighbors.
He brushed the beads of sweat off his brow. Even in the dead of night, the Azenyan savanna could be warm and muggy, especially in the wet season. Dew glittered from the moonlight on the tall grass shoots that licked past him as he advanced further from the village and its sorghum plots. The silhouettes of acacia, baobab, and palm trees were scattered across the otherwise open plain. It was almost like the wooded prairie around Mick’s hometown in eastern Tejos, except the grass stretched above his waist here.
A deep, throaty moan echoed across the field. It was the haunting song of a Brontosaurus, or what the Azenyans named Tembo. As an icy chill pulsed through his veins, Mick hugged his rifle close to his chest. Like many of the savanna’s larger dinosaurs, Tembo could be awake at night as well as day. And even if they ate only leaves and grass, one herd of those brutes could trample a whole village into dust and splinters.
Mick licked his thumb to measure the wind’s direction and moved alongside it. He held his torso low to the grass as he jogged, praying to luck that the night’s blackness would hide him further. His trenchcoat may have fluttered like a heroic cape behind him, but at least it was the right color.
He stopped before a trail of three-toed footprints in the earth. Crisp-edged and still warm, they ran in many staggered lines across the plain. Each spanned almost the size of Mick’s boot, so they were sizable animals, but the claw marks had duller tips than a predator’s. Ahead on the horizon grazed a flock of Farasi, or Gallimimus.
Running perpendicular to the Farasi tracks were those of one other animal, which were also three-toed but larger. And unlike the Farasi, these tracks ended with sharp claw marks.
But they felt less warm than the others. This beast must have passed on no later than an hour ago.
Mick crouched into the grass and crept towards the Farasi, emulating the movements of a stalking cougar. Back on the plains of Tejos, he had hunted many a deer, pronghorn, and bison like this. Memories of those past successes flashed through his mind, as did those of all the appraisal he’d received from his fellow trappers. That was back when the people of Tejos, and the whole United Republic of Murica, still adored him. But that was then, and he had to press on.
The Farasi could almost be mistaken for ostriches from a distance, right down to their curving long necks and wings of bristly feathers. But they stood taller than horses at the hips, and long tails counterbalanced the dinosaurs’ bodies. As Mick drew nearer, the rotting meat washed over him from the Farasi’s direction. For even though they looked like they were pecking the grass like antelopes from Mick’s point of view, these omnivores’ beaks were dropping with the blood of carrion.
They were scavenging the half-eaten carcass of a Tembo. It had been a juvenile individual, not much bigger than an elephant, but it was still a mountain of meat. Mick could fill all the bowls in Nothembi’s hut with enough meat to feed them both for a month. But it would be decayed, stinking meat, with the drool of Farasi and God knew what else staining it. By contrast, the Farasi drumsticks would be fresh, and procured courtesy of Mick’s own rifle. Nothembi would be proud of him bagging one of the speedy bastards.
Pressing his chest against the earth, Mick aligned his rifle’s barrel with one of the Farasi’s breasts and cocked the weapon.
They all shot their heads straight up and bleated. One craned its neck around in a scan of their surroundings, sniffing the air. Mick held his breath and froze every muscle of his body when its glowing eyes ran past him.
It threw its head up, flapped its wings, and cried shrill like a frightened elk. All the Farasi then burst screeching into a sprint away from the Tembo carcass.
Growling a curse, Mick fired into the fleeing flock. But not one of the Farasi bleated a death cry, nor did any of them drop in mid-run. He had missed.
He crammed another cartridge into the rifle and took off in their direction. No matter how fast he raced across the field, with trenchcoat waving from his back like a battle flag, he could not find the Farasi anymore. He had no hope of catching up to the most fleet-footed dinosaurs on the savanna.
But what could have spooked them so? Had the cocking of his gun really done it. Or was it something else out there, something even bigger and hungrier?
Mick’s stomach gurgled yet again. Perhaps he, the meanest sharpshooter west of the Massappi and north of the Rio Macho, would have to settle for rotten Tembo tonight.
A monstrous shriek pierced Mick’s eardrums. A pair of Sambu, or Allosaurus, had pounced on the Tembo carcass and were already ripping into it with their front claws and jagged teeth. Though smaller and lighter in build than Agu the Tyrannosaurus from the western jungles, Sambu would have dwarfed even the largest grizzly bears back in Tejos and ranked among the ruling predators of the savanna.
But if Mick were to let them finish off the nearest hunk of meat he could find, then he would go home with his stomach still tormenting him.
He fired his rifle at one of the Sambu. It yelped, but the cartridge had only grazed the tough scales on its shoulder. Both of the theropods shrieked back at Mick with blood and carrion scraps flying from their mouths. Defiant, bestial rage blazed in their eyes like brush fires.
Mick’s heart was throbbing in a panicked frenzy as he hurried to shove in the next cartridge. He had not even gotten it all in when the ground pulsed under his boots. The two Sambu were charging at full speed towards him, blurring into the air in spite of their size.
He slammed the rifle’s barrel shut and pushed the trigger. This time he streaked across the first Sambu’s shin, enough to kick it down on its flank in mid-stride. Whatever rush of triumphant relief Mick may have felt from this hit, it flashed away when the second Sambu snatched the gun in its jaws. His arm muscles stretched as he wrestled to free his weapon from the saurian’s toothy grasp. He had almost pried it free when the Sambu slashed his breast rightward with its front claws.
Mick could only stagger backward to watch the bastard spawn of bird and lizard hurl his beloved rifle into a baobab’s fat trunk, splintering it halfway. He roared with vengeance as he ripped his revolver from its holster and pumped bullets into the beast’s lunging maw. None of these shots downed the Sambu but did break its momentum to a halt. Mick grinned with victorious glee as he aimed for the reeling dinosaur’s brain.
But then the first Sambu sprang back up and jerked him away by his trenchcoat collar.
By kicking his legs backwards, Mick pelted its breast with the spurs on his boots. But this did not perturb the monster in the least. The second Sambu, with blood streaming from the wounds in it mouth, snapped onto his feet with teeth cutting through the boots’ leather. It pulled at his legs as a dog would pull at its chewing toy. When Mick raised his revolver for one more shot into its face, both the Sambu rattled him together to shake his gun loose.
So Mick Hancock had gotten himself disarmed and caught in the teeth of two large flesh-eating dinosaurs. All in the name of getting his own midnight snack.
A scream cut through the night. It was not Mick in his sheer terror. No, it was the battle cry of Nothembi.
Brandishing her spear and cowhide shield, she led the warriors of the village in a whooping charge across the plain. Both of the Sambu dropped Mick and shrieked their threats back at the Azenyans. Nothembi and her fighters did not hesitate to clatter their weapons onto their shields, chanting taunts and curses. The ferocity of the warriors’ display never faltered no matter how deafening the Sambu’s retorts.
As if they had put up with enough of this threat contest, together the dinosaurs outstretched their forelegs and stormed for the Azenyans with gapes extended wide as possible. They were both heading for the head of their formation, Nothembi herself.
Mick retrieved his revolver and tried to fire it into the Sambu. It clicked empty. He slapped all pockets on him in search of extra bullets. They too were empty.
There was the scream and rattle of death. It was one of the Sambu. For Nothembi had chucked her spear straight through its brain and out again.
Its surviving partner skidded to a stop. It lowered both head and tail before Nothembi, a whimpering display of defeat, and then fled for the horizon.
The night’s violence had drained all the energy, and a good deal of his blood, out of Mick Hancock. He toppled onto the grass dizzy.
“Mick! I was so worried for you!” Nothembi jumped to embrace her husband, kissing him on the brow. “What brought you out here, after the middle of night?”
Mick’s cheeks flushed pink. “I woke up hungry.”
The warriors blinked and snickered, which then exploded into incredulous laughter. Even Nothembi herself could not help but smile.
“Next time you want a midnight snack, my love, please wake me up so I can fix it for you.”
Mick smacked the palm of his hand into his face and cursed.
“But do not worry,” Nothembi continued. “We’ll have plenty of meat to work with this morning.”
At least Mick’s stomach would not purr for much longer then.