Back to the Stone Age

Chapter IV

Skruf of Basti

Edgar Rice Burroughs

WHEN VON HORST awoke he was ravenously hungry. As he raised himself to an elbow, Dangar looked at him and smiled.

“You have had a long sleep,” he said, “but you needed it.”

“Was it very long?” asked von Horst.

“I have slept twice while you slept once,” replied Dangar, “and I am now sleepy again.”

“And I am hungry,” said von Horst, “ravenously hungry; but I am sick of nuts and fruit. I want meat; I need it.”

“I think you will find plenty of game down stream,” said Dangar. “I noticed a little valley not far below here while you were carrying me down the hill. There were many animals there.”

Von Horst rose to his feet. “I’ll go and get one.” “Be Careful,” cautioned the Pellucidarian. “You are a stranger in this world. You do not know all the animals that are dangerous. There are some that look quite harmless but are not. The red deer and the thag will often charge and toss you on their horns or trample your life out, though they eat no meat. Look out for the bucks and the bulls of all species and the shes when they have young. Watch above, always, for birds and reptiles. It is well to walk where there are trees to give you shelter from these and a place into which to climb to escape the others.”

“At least I am safe from one peril,” commented von Horst.

“What is that?” asked Dangar.

“In Pellucidar, I shall never die of ennui.”

“I do not know what you mean. I do not know what ennui is.”

“No Pellucidarian ever could,” laughed von Horst, as he quit the shelter and descended to the ground.

Following Dangar’s suggestion, he followed the stream down toward the valley that the Sarian had noticed, being careful to remain as close to trees as possible and keeping always on the alert for the predatory beasts, birds, and reptiles that are always preying upon lesser creatures.

He had not gone far when he came in sight of the upper end of the valley and saw a splendid buck antelope standing alone as though on guard. He offered a splendid shot for a rifle, but the distance was too great to chance a pistol shot; so von Horst crept closer, taking advantage of the cover afforded by clumps of tall grasses, the bamboo-like reeds, and the trees. Cautiously he wormed his way nearer and nearer to his quarry that he might be sure to bring it down with the first shot. He still had a full belt of cartridges, but he knew that when these were gone the supply could never be replenished—every one of them must count.

His whole attention centered upon the buck, he neglected for the moment to be on the watch for danger. Slowly he crept on until he reached a point just behind some tall grasses that grew but a few paces from the still unsuspecting animal. He raised his pistol to take careful aim, and as he did so a shadow passed across him. It was but a fleeting shadow, but in the brilliant glare of the Pellucidarian sun it seemed to have substance. It was almost as though a hand had been laid upon his shoulder. He looked up, and as he did so he saw a hideous thing diving like a bullet out of the blue apparently straight for him—a mighty reptile that he subconsciously recognized as a pteranodon of the Cretaceous. With a roaring hiss, as of a steam locomotive’s exhaust the thing dropped at amazing speed. Mechanically, von Horst raised his pistol although he knew that nothing short of a miracle could stop or turn that frightful engine of destruction before it reached its goal; and then he saw that he was not its target. It was the buck. The antelope stood for a moment as though paralyzed by terror; then it sprang away—but too late. The pteranodon swooped upon it, seized it in its mighty talons, and rose again into the air.

Von Horst breathed a sigh of relief as he wiped the perspiration from his forehead. “What a world!” he muttered, wondering how man had survived amidst such savage surroundings.

Farther down the little valley he now saw many animals grazing. There were deer and antelope and the great, shaggy bos so long extinct upon the outer crust. Among them were little, horse-like creatures, no larger than a fox terrier, resembling the Hyracotherium of the Eocene, early progenitors of the horse, which but added to the amazing confusion of birds, mammals, and reptiles of various eras of the evolution of life on the outer crust.

The sudden attack of the pteranodon upon one of their number frightened the other animals in the immediate vicinity; and they were galloping off down the valley, snorting, squealing, and bucking leaving von Horst to contemplate the flying hoofs of many a fine dinner. There was nothing to do but follow them if he would have meat; and so he set off after them, keeping close to the fringe of trees along the stream which wound along one side of the valley. But to add to his discomfiture, those that had initiated the stampede bore down upon the herds grazing below them, imparting their terror to these others, with the result that the latter joined them; and in a short time all were out of sight.

Most of them kept on down the valley, disappearing from the man’s view where the valley turned behind the hills; but he saw a few large sheep run into a canyon between two nearby cones, and these he decided to pursue. As he entered the canyon he saw that it narrowed rapidly, evidently having been formed by the erosion of water which had uncovered the broken lava rocks of a previous flow. Only a narrow trail ran between some of the huge blocks, hundreds of which were scattered about in the wildest confusion.

The sheep had been running rapidly; and as they had started considerably ahead of him, he knew that they must be out of earshot by now; so he made no effort to hide his pursuit, but moved at a quick walk along the winding trail between the rocks. He came at last to a point where the trail debouched upon a wider portion of the canyon. and as he was about to enter it he heard plainly the sound of running feet coming toward him from the upper portion of the canyon, which he could not see. And then he heard a disconcerting series of growls and snarls from the same direction. He had already seen enough of Pellucidar and its bloodthirsty fauna to take it for granted that practically everything that had life might be considered a potential menace; so he leaped quickly behind a large lava rock and waited.

He had scarcely concealed himself, when a man came running from the upper end of the gorge. It seemed to von Horst that the newcomer was as fleet as a deer. And it was well for him that he was fleet, for behind him came the author of the savage snarls and growls that von Horst had heard—a great, dog-like beast as large and savage as a leopard. As fleet as the man was, however, the beast was gaining on him; and it was apparent to von Horst that it would overtake its quarry and drag him down before he had crossed the open space.

The fellow was armed only with a crude stone knife, which he now carried in one hand, as though determined to make what fight for his life he might when he could no longer outdistance his pursuer; but he must have realized, as did von Horst, how futile his weapon would be against the powerful beast bearing down upon him.

There was no question in von Horst’s mind as to what he should do. He could not stand idly by and see a human being tom to pieces by the cruel fangs of the Hyaenodon, and so he stepped from behind the rock that had concealed him from both the man and the beast; and, jumping quickly to one side where he might obtain an unobstructed shot at the creature, raised his pistol, took careful aim, and fired. It was not a lucky shot; it was a good shot, perfect. It bored straight through the left side of the brute’s chest and buried itself in his heart. With a howl of pain and rage, the carnivore bounded forward almost to von Horst; then it crumpled at his feet, dead.

The man it had been pursuing, winded and almost spent, came to a halt. He was wide-eyed and trembling as he stood staring at von Horst in wonder and amazement. As the latter turned toward him he backed away, gripping his knife more tightly.

“Go away!” he growled. “I kill!” He spoke the same language that Dangar had taught von Horst, which, he had explained, was the common language of all Pellucidar; a statement that the man from the outer crust had doubted possible.

“You kill what?” demanded von Horst.


“Why do you wish to kill me?” “So that I shall not be killed by you.” “Why should I kill you?” asked von Horst. “I just saved your life. If I had wished you to die, I could have just left you to that beast.” The man scratched his head. “That is so,” he admitted after some reflection; “but still I do not understand it. I am not of your tribe; therefore there is no reason why you should not wish to kill me. I have never seen a man like you before. All other strangers that I have met have tried to kill me. Then, too, you cover your body with strange skins. You must come from a far country.” “I do,” von Horst assured him; “but the question now is, are we to be friends or enemies?” Again the man ran his nails through his shock of black hair meditatively. “It is very peculiar,” he said. “It is something that I have never before heard of. Why should we be friends?” “Why should we be enemies?” countered von Horst. “Neither one of us has ever harmed the other. I am from a very far country, a stranger in yours. Were you to come to my country, you would be treated well. No one would wish to kill you. You would be given shelter and fed. People would be kindly toward you, just because they are kindly by nature and not because you could be of any service to them. Here, it is far more practical that we be friends; because we are surrounded by dangerous beasts, and two men can protect themselves better than one.

“However, if you wish to be my enemy, that is up to you. I may go my way, and you yours; or, if you wish to try to kill me, that, too, is a matter for you to decide; but do not forget how easily I killed this beast here. Just as easily could I kill you.”

“Your words are true words,” said the man. “We shall be friends. I am Skruf. Who are you?”

In his conversations with Dangar, von Horst had noticed that no Pellucidarians that the other had mentioned had more than one name, to which was sometimes added a descriptive title such as the Hairy One, the Sly One, the Killer, or the like; and as Dangar usually called him von, he had come to accept this as the name he would use in the inner world; so this was the name that he gave to Skruf.

“What are you doing here?” asked the man. “This is a bad country because of the Trodons.”

“I have found it so,” replied von Horst. “I was brought here by a Trodon.”

The other eyed him skeptically. “You would be dead now if a Trodon had ever seized you.”

“One did, and took me to its nest to feed its young. I and another man escaped.”

“Where is he?”

“Back by the river in our camp. I was hunting for food when I met you. I was following some sheep up this canyon. What were you doing here?”

“I was escaping from the Mammoth Men,” replied Skruf. “Some of them captured me. They were taking me back to their country to make a slave of me, but I escaped from them. They were pursuing me, but when I reached this canyon I was safe. In places it is too narrow to admit a mammoth.”

“What are you going to do now?” “Wait until I think they have given up the chase and then return to my own country.” Von Horst suggested that Skruf come to his camp and wait and that then the three of them could go together as far as their trails were identical, but first he wished to bag some game. Skruf offered to help him, and with the latter’s knowledge of the quarry it was not long before they had found the sheep and von Horst had killed a young buck. Skruf was greatly impressed and not a little frightened by the report of the pistol and the, to him, miraculous results that von Horst achieved with it.

After skinning the buck and dividing the weight of the carcass between them, they set off for camp, which they reached without serious interruption. Once a bull thag charged them, but they climbed trees and waited until it had gone away, and another time a saber-tooth crossed their path; but his belly was full, and he did not molest them. Thus, through the primitive savagery of Pellucidar, they made their way to the camp.

Dangar was delighted that von Horst had returned safely, for he knew the many dangers that beset a hunter in this fierce world. He was much surprised when he saw Skruf; but when the circumstances were explained to him he agreed to accept the other as a friend, though this relationship with a stranger was as foreign to his code as to Skruf’s.

Skruf came from a land called Basti which lay in the same general direction as Sari, though much closer; so it was decided that they would travel together to Skruf’s country as soon as Dangar recovered.

Von Horst could not understand how these men knew in what direction their countries lay when there were no means of determining the points of the compass, nor could they explain the phenomenon to him. They merely pointed to their respective countries, and they pointed in the same general direction. How far they were from home neither knew; but by comparing notes, they were able to assume that Sari lay very much farther away than Basti. What von Horst had not yet discovered was that each possessed, in common with all other inhabitants of Pellucidar, a well developed homing instinct identical with that of most birds and which is particularly apparent in carrier pigeons.

As sleeps came and went and hunting excursions were made necessary to replenish their larder, Skruf grew more and more impatient of the delay. He was anxious to return to his own country, but he realized the greater safety of numbers and especially that of the protection of von Horst’s miraculous weapon that killed so easily at considerable distances. He often questioned Dangar in an effort to ascertain if there was any change in his condition, and he was never at any pains to conceal his disappointment when the Sarian admitted that he still had no feeling below his neck.

On one occasion when von Horst and Skruf had gone farther afield than usual to hunt, the latter broached the subject of his desire to return to his own country; and the man of the outer crust learned for the first time the urge that prompted the other’s impatience.

“I have chosen my mate,” explained Skruf, “but she demanded the head of a tarag to prove that I am a brave man and a great hunter. It was while I was hunting the tarag that the Mammoth Men captured me. The girl has slept many times since I went away. If I do not return soon some other warrior may bring the head of a tarag and place it before the entrance to her cave; then, when I return, I shall have to find another who will mate with me.”

“There is nothing to prevent your returning to your own country whenever you see fit,” von Horst assured him.

“Could you kill a tarag with that little thing that makes such a sharp noise?” inquired Skruf.

“I might.” Von Horst was not so certain of this; at least he was not certain that he could kill one of the mighty tigers quickly enough to escape death from its formidable fangs and powerful talons before it succumbed

“The way we have come today,” remarked Skruf, tentatively, “is in the direction of my country. Let us continue on.”

“And leave Dangar?” asked von Horst.

Skruf shrugged. “He will never recover. We cannot remain with him forever. If you will come with me, you can easily kill a tarag with the thing you call pistol; then I will place it before the entrance to the girl’s cave, and she will think that I killed it. In return, I will see that the tribe accepts you. They will not kill you. You may live with us and be a Bastian. You can take a mate, too; and there are many beautiful girls in Basti.”

“Thanks,” replied von Horst; “but I shall remain with Dangar. It will not be long now before he recovers. I am sure that the effects of the poison will disappear as they did in my case. The reason that they have persisted so much longer is that he must have received a much larger dose than I.”

“If he dies, will you come with me?” demanded Skruf.

Von Horst did not like the expression in the man’s eyes as he asked the question. He had never found Skruf as companionable as Dangar. His manner was not as frank and open. Now he was vaguely suspicious of his intentions and his honesty, although he realized that he had nothing tangible upon which to base such a judgment and might be doing the man an injustice. However, he phrased his reply to Skruf’s question so that he would be on the safe side and not be placing a premium on Dangar’s life. “If he lives,” he said, “we will both go with you when he recovers.” Then he turned back toward the camp.

Time passed. How much, von Horst could not even guess. He had attempted to measure it once, keeping his watch wound and checking off the lapse of days on a notched stick; but where it is always noon it is not always easy to remember either to wind or consult a watch. Often he found that it had run down; and then, of course, he never knew how long it had been stopped before he discovered that it was not running; nor, when he slept, did he ever know for how long a time. So presently he became discouraged; or, rather, he lost interest. What difference did the duration of time make, anyway? Had not the inhabitants of Pellucidar evidently existed quite as contentedly without it as they would have with? Doubtless they had been more contented. As he recalled his world of the outer crust he realized that time was a hard task master that had whipped him through life a veritable slave to clocks, watches, bugles, and whistles.

Skruf often voiced his impatience to be gone, and Dangar urged them not to consider him but to leave him where he was if they would not kill him. And so the two men slept or ate or hunted through the timeless noon of the eternal Pellucidarian day; but whether it was for hours or for years, von Horst could not tell.

He tried to accustom himself to all this and to the motionless sun hanging forever in the exact center of the hollow sphere, the interior surface of which is Pellucidar and the outer, the world that we know and that he had always known; but he was too new to his environment to be able to accept it as did Skruf and Dangar who never had known aught else.

And then he was suddenly awakened from a sound sleep by the excited cries of Dangar. “I can move’” exclaimed the Sarian. “Look! I can move my fingers.”

The paralysis receded rapidly, and as Dangar rose unsteadily to his feet the three men experienced a feeling of elation such as might condemned men who had just received their reprieves. To von Horst it was the dawning of a new day, but Dangar and Skruf knew nothing of dawns. However, they were just as happy.

“And now,” cried Skruf, “we start for Basti. Come with me, and you shall be treated as my brothers. The people will welcome you, and you shall live in Basti forever.”

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