Von Horst became so confused and bewildered during the early stages of the long journey that he had not the remotest conception of even the general direction in which they were traveling, and often doubted Skruf’s ability to find his way back to his own country; but neither the Bastian nor Dangar appeared to entertain the slightest misgiving.
Game was plenty—usually far too plenty and too menacing—and von Horst had no difficulty in keeping them well supplied; but the steady drain upon his store of ammunition made him apprehensive for the future, and he determined to find some means of conserving his precious cartridges that he might have them for occasions of real emergency when his pistol might mean a matter of life and death to him.
His companions were, culturally, still in the stone age, having no knowledge of any weapon more advanced than clubs, stone knives, and stone tipped spears; so, having witnessed the miraculous ease and comparative safety with which von Horst brought down even large beasts with his strange weapon, they were all for letting him do the killing.
For reasons of his own, largely prompted by his suspicions concerning Skruf’s loyalty, von Horst did not wish the others to know that his weapon would be harmless when his supply of ammunition was exhausted; and they were too ignorant of all matters concerning firearms to deduce as much for themselves. It was necessary, therefore, to find some plausible excuse for insisting that their hunting be done with other weapons.
Skruf was armed with a knife and a spear when they set out upon their journey; and as rapidly as he could find the materials and fashion them, Dangar had fabricated similar weapons for himself. With his help, von Horst finally achieved a spear; and shortly thereafter commenced to make a bow and arrows. But long before they were completed he insisted that they must kill their game with the primitive weapons they possessed because the report of the pistol would be certain to attract the attention of enemies to them. As they were going through a country in which Skruf assured them they might meet hunting and raiding parties from hostile tribes, both he and Dangar appreciated the wisdom of von Horst’s suggestion; and thereafter the three lay in wait for their prey with stone-shod spears.
The ease with which von Horst adapted himself to the primitive life of his cave-men companions was a source of no little wonder even to himself. How long a time had elapsed since he left the outer crust, he could not know; but he was convinced that it could not have been more than a matter of months; yet in that time he had sloughed practically the entire veneer of civilization that it had taken generations to develop, and had slipped back perhaps a hundred thousand years until he stood upon a common footing with men of the old stone age. He hunted as they hunted, ate as they ate, and often found himself thinking in terms of the stone age.
Gradually his apparel of the civilized outer crust had given way to that of a long dead era. His boots had gone first. They had been replaced by sandals of mammoth hide. Little by little his outer clothing, torn and rotten, fell apart until he no longer covered his nakedness; then he had been forced to discard it and adopt the skin loin cloth of his companions. Now, indeed, except for the belt of cartridges, the hunting knife, and the pistol, was he a veritable man of the Pleistocene.
With the completion of his bow and a quantity of arrows, he felt that he had taken a definite step forward. The thought amused him. Perhaps now he was ten or twenty thousand years more advanced than his fellows. But he was not to remain so long. As soon as he had perfected himself in the use of the new weapons, both Dangar and Skruf were anxious to possess similar ones. They were as delighted with them as children with new toys; and soon learned to use them, Dangar, especially, showing marked aptitude. Yet the pistol still intrigued them. Skruf had constantly importuned von Horst to permit him to fire it, but the European would not let him even touch it.
“No one can safely handle it but myself,” he explained. “It might easily kill you if you did.”
“I am not afraid of it,” replied Skruf. “I have watched you use it. I could do the same. Let me show you.”
But von Horst was determined to maintain the ascendancy that his sole knowledge of the use of the pistol gave him, and it was later to develop that his decision was a wise one. But the best corroborating evidence of his assurance to Skruf that the weapon would be dangerous to anyone but von Horst was furnished by Skruf himself.
All during the journey Skruf kept referring to his desire to take home the head of a tarag that he might win the consent of his lady-love. He was constantly suggesting that von Horst shoot one of the great brutes for him, until it became evident to both von Horst and Dangar that the fellow was terrified at the thought of attempting to kill one by himself. Von Horst had no intention of tempting fate by seeking an encounter with this savage monster, a creature of such enormous proportions, great strength, and awful ferocity that it has been known to drag down and kill a bull mastodon single-handed.
They had not chanced to cross the path of one of the monsters; and von Horst was hopeful that they would not, but the law of chance was against him. No one may blame von Horst for a disinclination to pit himself against this monster of a bygone age with the puny weapons that he carried. Even his pistol could do little more than enrage the creature. Could he reach its heart with any weapon it would die eventually, but probably not quickly enough to save him from a terrible mauling and almost certain death. Yet, of course, there was always a chance that he might conquer the great brute.
Then it happened, and so suddenly and unexpectedly that there was no opportunity for preparation. The three men were walking single file along a forest trail. Von Horst was in the lead, followed by Skruf. Suddenly, without warning, a tarag leaped from the underbrush directly in their path not three paces from von Horst. To the eyes of the European it appeared as large as a buffalo, and perhaps it was. Certainly it was a monstrous creature with gaping jaws and flaming eyes.
The instant that it struck the ground in front of the men it leaped for von Horst. Skruf turned and fled, knocking Dangar down in his precipitate retreat. Von Horst had not even time to draw his pistol, so quickly was the thing upon him. He happened to be carrying his spear in his right hand with the tip forward. He never knew whether the thing he did was wholly a mechanical reaction or whether by intent. He dropped to one knee, placed the butt of the spear on the ground and pointed the head at the beast’s throat; and in the same instant the tarag impaled itself upon the weapon. Von Horst held his ground; the shaft of the spear did not break; and notwithstanding all its strength and size, the beast could not quite reach the man with its talons.
It screamed and roared and threshed about, tearing at the spear in an agony of pain and rage; and every instant van Horst expected that the shaft must break and let the beast fall upon him. Then Dangar ran in and, braving the dangers of those clawing talons, thrust his spear into the tarag’s side—not once, but twice, three times the sharp stone point sank into the heart and lungs of the great tiger until, with a final scream, it sank lifeless to the ground. And when it was all over, Skruf descended from a tree in which he had taken refuge and fell upon the carcass with his crude knife. He paid no attention to either von Horst or Dangar as he hacked away until he finally severed the head. Then he wove a basket of long grasses and strapped the trophy to his back. All this he did without even a by-your-leave, nor did he thank the men who had furnished the trophy with which he hoped to win a mate.
Both von Horst and Dangar were disgusted with him, but perhaps the European was more amused than angry; however, the remainder of that march was made in silence, nor did one of them refer to the subject again in any way, though the stench from the rotting head waxed more and more unbearable as they proceeded on their way to the country of the Bastians.
The three men had hidden themselves away in a deserted cave high in a cliffside to sleep, shortly following the encounter with the tarag which had occurred after Skruf had made his final appeal for a chance to show what he could do with a pistol, when van Horst and Dangar were awakened by a shot. As they leaped to their feet, they saw Skruf toppling to the floor of the cave as he hurled the pistol from him. Van Horst rushed to the man’s side where he lay writhing and moaning, but a brief examination convinced the European that the fellow was more terrified than hurt. His face was powder marked, and there was a red welt across one cheek where the bullet had grazed it. Otherwise, the only damage done was to his nervous system; and that had received a shock from which it did not soon recover. Van Horst turned away and picked up his pistol. Slipping it into its holster, he lay down again to sleep. “The next time it will kill you, Skruf,” he said. That was all. He was confident that the man had learned his lesson. For some time after the incident in the cave, Skruf was taciturn and surly; and on several occasions von Horst detected the man eyeing him with an ugly expression on his dark countenance; but eventually this mood either passed or was suppressed, for as they neared Basti he grew almost jovial.
“We’ll soon be there,” he announced after a long sleep. “You’re going to see a tribe of fine people, and you’re going to be surprised by the reception you’ll get. Basti is a fine country; you’ll never leave it.”
On that march, they left the low country and the river they had been following and entered low hills beyond which loomed mountains of considerable height. Eventually Skruf led them into a narrow gorge between chalk cliffs. It was a winding gorge along which they could see but a short distance either ahead or behind. A little stream of clear water leaped and played in the sunlight on its way down to some mysterious, distant sea. Waving grasses grew upon thin topsoil at the summit of the cliffs; and there was some growth at the edges of the stream where soil, washing down from above, had lodged—some flowering shrubs and a few stunted trees.
Skruf was in the lead. He appeared quite excited, and kept repeating that they were almost at the village of the Bastians. “Around the next turn,” he said presently, “the lookout will see us and give the alarm.”
The prophesy proved correct, for as they turned a sharp corner of the cliff upon their left, a voice boomed out from above them in a warning that reverberated up and down the gorge. “Some one comes” it shouted, and then to those below him, “Stop! or I kill. Who are you who come to the land of the Bastians?”
Von Horst looked up to see a man standing upon a ledge cut from the face of the chalk cliff. Beside him were a number of large boulders that he could easily shove off onto anyone beneath.
Skruf looked up at the man and replied, “We are friends. I am Skruf.”
“I know you,” said the lookout, “but I do not know the others. Who are they?”
“I am taking them to Frug, the chief,” replied Skruf. “One is Dangar, who comes from a country he calls Sari; the other comes from another country very far away.”
“Are there more than three?” asked the lookout.
“No,” replied Skruf; “there are only three.”
“Take them to Frug, the chief,” directed the lookout.
The three continued along the gorge, coming at length to a large, circular basin in the surrounding walls of which von Horst saw many caves. Before each cave was a ledge, and from one ledge to the next ladders connected the different levels. Groups of women and children clustered on the ledges before the mouths of the caves, staring down at them questioningly, evidently having been warned by the cry of the lookout. A row of warriors stretched across the basin between them and the cliffs where the caves lay. They, too, appeared to have been expecting the party, and were ready to receive them in whatever guise they appeared, whether as friends or foes.
“I am Skruf,” cried that worthy. “I wish to see Frug. You all know Skruf.”
“Skruf has been gone for many sleeps,” replied one. “We thought he was dead and would come no more.”
“But I am Skruf,” insisted the man.
“Come forward then, but first throw down your weapons.”
They did as they were bid; but Skruf, who was in the lead, did not observe that von Horst retained his pistol. The three men advanced, and as they did so they were completely surrounded by the warriors of Basti who were now pressing forward.
“Yes, he is Skruf,” remarked several as they drew nearer; but there was no cordiality in their tones, no slightest coloring of friendship. They halted presently before a huge man, a hairy man. He wore a necklace of the talons of bears and tigers. It was Frug.
“You are Skruf,” he announced. “I see that you are Skruf, but who are these?”
“They are prisoners,” replied Skruf, “that I have brought back to be slaves to the Basti. I have also brought the head of a tarag that I killed. I shall place it before the cave of the woman I would mate with. Now I am a great warrior.”
Von Horst and Dangar looked at Skruf in amazement.
“You have lied to us, Skruf,” said the Sarian. “We trusted you. You said that your people would be our friends.”
“We are not the friends of our enemies,” growled Frug, “and all men who are not Bastians are our enemies.”
“We are not enemies,” said von Horst. “We have hunted and slept with Skruf as friends for many sleeps. Are the men of Basti all liars and cheats?”
“Skruf is a liar and a cheat,” said Frug; “but I did not promise that I would be your friend, and I am chief. Skruf does not speak for Frug.”
“Let us go our way to my country,” said Dangar. “You have no quarrel with me or my people.”
Frog laughed. “I do not quarrel with slaves,” he said. “They work, or I kill them. Take them away and put them to work,” he ordered, addressing the surrounding warriors.
Immediately several Bastians closed in on them and seized them. Von Horst saw that resistance would be futile. He might kill several of them before he emptied his pistol; but they would almost certainly overpower him in the end; or, more probably, run a half dozen spears through him. Even though they did not, and he escaped temporarily, the lookout in the gorge below would but have to topple a couple of boulders from his ledge to finish him as effectually.
“I guess we’re in for it,” he remarked to Dangar.
“Yes,” replied the Sarian. “I see now what Skruf meant when he said that we would be surprised by the reception we got and that we would never leave Basti.”
The guards hustled them to the foot of the cliff and herded them up ladders to the highest ledge. Here were a number of men and women working with crude stone instruments chipping and scraping away at the face of the chalk cliff, scooping out a new ledge and additional caves. These were the slaves. A Bastian warrior squatting upon his heels in the shadow of the entrance to a new cave that was being excavated directed the work. Those who had brought Dangar and von Horst to the ledge turned them over to this man.
“Was it Skruf who took these men prisoners?” asked the guard. “It looked like him from here, but it doesn’t seem possible that such a coward could have done it.”
“He tricked them,” explained the other. “He told them they would be received here as friends and be well treated. He brought back the head of a tarag, too; he is going to put it at the entrance to the cave where the slave girl, La-ja, sleeps. He asked Frug for her, and the chief told him he could have her if he brought back the head of a tarag. Frug thought that was a good joke—the same as saying no.”
“Men of Basti do not mate with slaves,” said the guard.
“They have,” the other reminded him; “and Frug has given his word, and he will keep it—only I’d have to see Skruf kill a tarag before I’d believe it.”
“He didn’t kill it,” said Dangar.
The two men looked at him in surprise. “How do you know?” asked the guard.
“I was there,” replied Dangar, “when this man killed the tarag. He killed it with a spear while Skruf climbed a tree. After it was dead he came down and cut off its head.”
“That sounds like Skruf,” said the warrior who had accompanied them to the ledge; then the two turned their attention to von Horst.
“So you killed a tarag with a spear?” one demanded, not without signs of respect.
Von Horst shook his head. “Dangar and I killed it together,” he explained. “It was really he who killed it.”
Then Dangar told them how von Horst had faced the beast alone and impaled it on his spear. It was evident during the recital that their respect for von Horst was increasing.
“I hope that I am lucky enough to get your heart,” said the guard; then he found tools for them and set them to work with the other slaves.
“What do you suppose he meant when he said that he hoped he would be lucky enough to get my heart,” asked von Horst after the guard had left them.
“There are men who eat men,” replied Dangar. “I have heard of them.”