Land of Terror

Chapter Twenty-Three

Edgar Rice Burroughs

I DON’T KNOW how long that voyage lasted. I slept many times, but I rigged up a contraption of spears and ropes so designed that U-Val could not approach without awakening me.

The wind held steadily in the same quarter. The canoe slipped through the water like a living thing, and U-Val was so pleased that he was almost decent. Several times—yes, many times—we were attacked by the fierce denizens of this paleolithic sea; but I had recovered my bow-and arrows from beneath the cargo covering; and my arrows, together with U-Val’s spears, always succeeded in averting the sudden death with which the terrible jaws of these horrific monsters threatened us.

The monotony of that voyage was the one thing about it which impressed me, and which I shall never forget. Even the hideous saurians rushing to attack us made less of an impression upon my mind than the deadly monotony of that vast expanse of horizonless water that stretched in all directions about us beyond the limits of human vision. Never a smudge of smoke from some distant steamer, for there were no steamers. Never a sail, for there were no sails—just empty ocean.

And then, at long last, I sighted land dead ahead. At first it was just a dark haze in the distance, but I knew that it could be nothing but land. I called U-Val’s attention to it; but, though he strained his eyes, he could not discern it. I was not greatly surprised, as I had long since discovered that my eyesight was much keener than that of the Pellucidarians. Perhaps. the possession of a marvelous homing instinct lessened the need of long range vision for them. They had never had to strain their eyes into the distance searching for familiar landmarks. That is just a theory of my own. It may be quite wrong. But this I will say for them: their hearing and their sense of smell were far keener than mine.

Not being able to see what I saw, U-Val insisted that I saw nothing. Human nature has not changed at all since the Stone Age.

We sailed on; and even though U-Val saw no land he held our course straight for that distant smudge that slowly took more definite shape, a fact which assured me that it must be the floating island of Ruva. Again, as I had a thousand times before, I marveled at that amazing instinct, inexplicable alike to those who possess it and to those who do not. How can it be explained? I haven’t even a theory.

At last, U-Val saw the land ahead. “You were right,” he admitted grudgingly. “There is land ahead; and it is Ruva, but I don’t understand how you could have seen it so much sooner than I.”

“That is quite easily explained,” I replied.

“How?” he demanded. .

“I can see farther than you can.” “Nonsense!” he snapped. “No one can see any farther than I.” What was the use of arguing with a mind like that? Anyway, I had something more important to discuss with him. I fitted an arrow to my bow.

“Why are you doing that?” he demanded, glancing quickly around. “There is nothing to shoot.”

“There is you,” I said.

For a moment he didn’t quite grasp the implication. When he did, he reached for a spear.

“Don’t touch it!” I commanded, “or I’ll put an arrow through your heart.”

He let his hand drop to his side. “You wouldn’t dare,” he said without much conviction.

“And why not? I can see land ahead, and I can reach it without any help from you.”

“It would do you no good. My people would kill you.”

“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” I countered. “I should tell them that I am your friend and that you sent me to Ruva to get a rescue party to come to the mainland to save you because you are being held a prisoner. If they are all as stupid as you, they will believe me; and they will take me back to the mainland to guide them to you. When we reach there, I shall pretend to go alone to spy upon the tribe that captured you; and I shall not come back. That is the last they will ever see of me.”

“But you wouldn’t kill me, David,” he plead. “We have been friends. We fought side by side. When I could have killed you, I spared your life.”

“But you kicked me in the belly when I was bound and helpless,” I reminded him.

“I am sorry,” he wailed; “and, anyway, I didn’t kick you very hard. Oh, please don’t kill me, David. Let me live, and I will do everything I can for you.”

“Well, I am not going to kill you, because for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to kill a helpless man in cold blood if there were any way to avoid it without jeopardizing my own life; so I will make you a proposition. If I spare your life, you must promise to take me among your people, not as a slave but as a friend whom you will protect from other members of your tribe; and at the first opportunity you will help me return to the mainland.”

“I promise,” he said, eagerly. A little too eagerly, I thought. I should have killed him then; and I knew it, but I couldn’t bring myself to the point of murder.

“Very well, see that you keep your promise,” I said, laying aside my bow.

As we neared the floating island of Ruva it appeared as low, level land, thickly grown with trees. It floated low in the water, its upper surface scarcely more than five feet above the waterline; and nowhere could I detect any sign of hills. The coast directly in view was irregular, being broken by small inlets or bays; and into one of these U-Val steered our craft. I took down our sail, and he paddled to shore.

It was good to feel ground beneath my feet again and to be able to stretch and move about.

U-Val made the canoe fast to a tree; and then, cupping his hands, voiced a high, piercing call. Then he listened. Presently, from far away came an answering cry.

“Come!” said U-Val. “They are by the fishing hole;” and he started off toward the interior along a well defined trail that wound through the forest.

The trees, of no great size, grow close together. They are of a species I had never seen before, as soft and spongy as some varieties of cactus but without spines or thorns. It is these trees which really not only make The Floating Islands, of which Ruva is one, but also make them a fit abode for human beings. The roots of the trees, closely interlaced, keep the islands from disintegrating and form a natural basket which holds the soil in which the vegetation grows. The trees also furnish a portion of the food supply of the islanders and all of their supply of fresh water, which they can obtain at any time by either tapping the bole of a tree or cutting off a limb. The tender young shoots are edible, and the fruit of the tree is one of the principal staples of food. There is little other vegetation on the island, and little need for other. Some long grass grows among the trees and there are several parasitic vines which sport gorgeous blooms. A few varieties of birds live on the island, affording the inhabitants a little variety in diet from the staple tree-food and fish, as they eat both their flesh and their eggs.

We had walked about a mile when we came to an area that had been partially cleared. A few scattered trees had been left, probably for the purpose of holding the soil together with live roots. In the center of the clearing a hole had been cut, possibly a hundred feet in diameter, forming a small pool. Some fifty people of both sexes and all ages were gathered in the clearing. Several of them stood beside the pool with their spears poised, waiting for a fish to swim within striking distance. The fishes must have learned from experience what would happen to them if they swam too close to the shoreline, for the center of the pool, out of range of a spear-thrust, fairly teemed with fish. Occasionally a foolish or unwary individual would swim within range, when instantly he would be impaled upon a barbed spearhead. The skill of these spearmen was most uncanny—they never missed; but because of the wariness of the fish, their catches were few.

As U-Val and I entered the clearing, the first man to notice us said, “U-Val has returned!” Then every eye was turned upon us; but there was no enthusiastic greeting for the returned prodigal.

A big fellow came toward us. “You have brought back a slave,” he said. It was not a question, merely a statement of fact.

“I am not a slave,” I rejoined. “U-Val and I were imprisoned together. We fought together. We escaped together; and so, in honor, U-Val could not make me his slave.”

“If you are not a slave, you are an enemy,” replied the man; “and enemies we kill.”

“I would come here as a friend,” I said. “There is no reason why we should be enemies: As a matter of fact I can be a very valuable friend.”

“How?” he demanded.

“I can show you how to build canoes that will travel without paddling,” I replied; “and I can show you how to catch the fish in the middle of the pool, which you are unable to reach with your spears.”

“I don’t believe you can do either of those things,” he said, “for if they could have been done, we could have done them. We know all there is to know about canoes and fishing. No one can teach us anything new.”

I turned to U-Val. “Didn’t I make your canoe go without paddling?” I demanded.

U-Val nodded. “Yes, it went even faster than I could paddle; but I can show them how to do that.”

“Yes,” I replied; “but you can only show them how it is done when the wind is directly behind you; but I can show them how to build canoes in which they can travel no matter in what direction the wind is blowing. That, you cannot do.”

“Is that true, U-Val?” asked the man.

“Yes, Ro-Tai, it is true,” replied U-Val.

“And can he catch fish from the middle of the pool?”

“That, I do not know.”

Ro- Tai turned to me. “If you can do these things at all,” he said, “you can do them just as well if you are a slave.”

“But I won’t do them if I am a slave. I won’t show you how to, either.”

“You will, or we’ll kill you,” snapped Ro-Tai.

“If you kill me, you’ll never learn how to do it,” I reminded him.

While we had been talking, a number of men had congregated about us, interested listeners. Now one of them spoke up. “We should accept this man as a friend, Ro- Tai,” he said, “on condition that he teaches us these things.”

“Yes,” said another, “Ul-Van has spoken words of wisdom. I do not believe that the stranger can do these things; and, if he cannot, we can either make him a slave or kill him.”

Quite a discussion ensued in which everybody took part. Some were opposed to accepting a stranger as a friend; but the majority of them agreed with Ul-Van, who seemed to me to be by far the most intelligent member of the company.

Finally, someone said, “Ro-Tai is chief. Let him decide.”

“Very well,” said Ro-Tai, “I shall decide;” then he turned to me. “Go now and catch a fish from the center of the pool. “

“I shall have to make some preparation,” I said. “I haven’t everything that I need.”

“You see,” remarked one of the dissenters, “that he is unable to do it. He is trying to gain time so that he may escape. “

“Nonsense,” said Ul-Van. “Let him make his preparations, and then if he fails it will be time enough to say that he cannot do it.”

Ro-Tai nodded. “Very well,” he said, “let him make his preparations; but you, Ul-Van, must stay with him always, to see that he does not try to escape.”

“If he cannot do it, he shall be my slave,” said U-Val, “for I brought him here.”

“If he can’t do it, he’ll be killed,” said Ro- Tai, “for trying to make fools of us.”

As soon as I was turned over to Ul-Van, I told him that I wanted a light, stout cord about thirty feet long.

“Come with me,” he said; and led me off along another trail beyond the pool. Presently we came to a second clearing in which were the sleeping shelters of the tribe. They were small, beehive huts, entirely covered with large leaves. At the bottom of each hut was a single opening, and into one of these Ul-Van crawled, emerging presently with a length of the braided grass rope such as I had seen in U-Val’s canoe. It was far too heavy for my purpose; but as it was made up of a number of smaller strands braided together, I saw that by unbraiding it I could get a single strand that would answer my purpose. This, he permitted. me to do; and I finally had a light cord about forty feet long.

Thus equipped, I returned to the pool. Here I fastened one end of the cord securely to the butt of an arrow and tied the other end around my right wrist; then I stepped to the end of the pool and fitted my arrow to the bow.

Every eye was upon me now as I stepped to the edge of the pool. Milling around in the center of the pool, leaping out of the water; were literally hundreds and hundreds of fish; but none of them approached within spear length of the shore.

I coiled the slack of the rope carefully at my feet, raised the bow and drew the arrow back its full length. I was very nervous, and well I might have been, for I had never tried this thing before; and I did not know if the arrow could carry true with the weight of the rope trailing behind it, and my life depended upon success.

I took careful aim at a spot where the fish were thickest. The bow twanged and the arrow sped straight for its mark. A fish jumped into the air and sounded. The rope played out rapidly. I braced my feet and prepared for the shock; and when it came I was almost jerked into the pool, but I managed to keep my footing.

I let the fish play for awhile without endeavoring to draw him in, for I was none too sure of the strength of my line, even though it had withstood the first great shock. I wanted to tire him, and every time that there was a little slack in the rope I pulled it in. Finally the struggling ceased, and the fish floated to the surface, belly up. I pulled it ashore and handed it to Ro-Tai, who immediately demanded that I make bows and arrows for every warrior of the tribe. Right there we ran into a snag. There was no growth on Ruva suitable for making bows. The result was that I was kept busy shooting fish.

Ro-Tai had to admit that I had taught them something, and his attitude toward me relaxed a little; but U-Val was still pretty sore at me. He wanted me as his slave, and he wanted all the credit for what I had done. Ul-Van told me that U-Val was very unpopular and that I was fortunate in not having him for a master.

The fish that I caught they cleaned and smoked, and when they thought they had a sufficient supply Ro-Tai insisted that I show them how to build a canoe that would travel through the water without paddling.

Immediately I was faced by an insurmountable obstacle. No trees suitable for canoe building grew upon Ruva or any of the other floating islands. All of their canoes had been built upon the mainland where the proper wood could be found. To build a canoe was a terrific undertaking, necessitating an expedition in which some twenty or thirty men were often absent from Ruva for a hundred sleeps or more.

The canoes would be roughly hewn on the mainland and then towed to Ruva, where the long and arduous job of finishing was completed.

These canoes remained in families for generations.. Ul-Van told me that his had been in his family for ten generations, at least. They are passed on from the father to the eldest son.

As the women and children seldom leave the islands, only enough canoes are needed to carry the men. A new canoe is built only when the number of men in the tribe exceeds the carrying capacity of the canoes they have; and this, UI-Van told me, seldom occurs more than a couple of times during the lifetime of a man, as the casualties among the warriors just about balance the birth-rate of males.

Land of Terror - Contents    |     Chapter Twenty-Four

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