Back to the Stone Age

Chapter VI


Edgar Rice Burroughs

THE SHADOWY COOLNESS of the cave in which von Horst and Dangar were put to work was a relief from the glare and heat of the sun in the open. At first the men were only dimly aware of the presence of others in the cave; but when their eyes became accustomed to the subdued light, they saw a number of slaves chipping at the walls. Some of them were on crude ladders, slowly extending the cave upward. Most of the slaves were men; but there were a few women among them, and one of the latter was working next to von Horst.

A Bastian warrior who was directing the work in the cave watched von Horst for a few moments; then he stopped him. “Don’t you know anything?” he demanded.

“You are doing this all wrong. Here!” He turned to the woman next to the European. “You show him the way, and see that he does it properly.”

Von Horst turned toward the woman, his eyes now accustomed to the subdued light of the cave. She had stopped work and was looking at him. The man saw that she was young and very good looking. Unlike the Bastian women he had seen, she was a blond.

“Watch me,” she said. “Do as I do. They will not ill treat you if you are slow, but they will if you make a poor job of what you are doing.”

Yon Horst watched her for awhile. He noted her regular features, the long lashes that shaded her large, intelligent eyes, the alluring contours of her cheek, her neck, and her small, firm breasts. He decided that she was very much better looking than his first glance had suggested.

Suddenly she turned upon him. “If you watch my hands and the tools you will learn more quickly,” she said.

Von Horst laughed. “But nothing half so pleasant,” he assured her.

“If you wish to do poor work and get beaten, that is your own affair.”

“Watch me,” he invited. “See if I have not improved already just from watching your profile.”

With his stone chisel and mallet he commenced to chip away at the soft chalk; then, after a moment, he turned to her again. “How is that?” he demanded.

“Well,” she admitted reluctantly, “it is better; but it will have to be much better. When you have been here as long as I have, you will have learned that it is best to do good work.”

“You have been here long?” he asked.

“For so many sleeps that I have lost count. And you?”

“I just came.”

The girl smiled. “Came! You mean that you were just brought. “

Von Horst shook his head. “Like a fool, I came. Skruf told us that we would be well received, that his people would treat us as friends. He lied to us.”

“Skruf!” The girl shuddered. “Skruf is a coward and a liar; but it is well for me that he is a coward. Otherwise. he might bring the head of a tarag and place it before the entrance to the cave where I sleep.”

Von Horst opened his eyes in astonishment. “You are La-ja, then?” he demanded.

“I am La-ja, but how did you know?” In her musical tones her name was very lovely—the broad a’s, the soft j, and the accent on the last syllable.

“A guard said that Frug had told Skruf that he might have you if he brought the head of a tarag. I recalled the name; perhaps because it is so lovely a name.”

She ignored the compliment. “I am still safe, then,” she said, “for that great coward would run from a tarag.”

“He did,” said von Horst, “but he brought the head of the beast back to Basti with him.”

The girl looked horrified and then skeptical. “You are trying to tell me that Skruf killed a tarag?” she demanded.

“I am trying to tell you nothing of the sort. Dangar and I killed it; but Skruf cut off its head and brought it with him, taking the credit.”

“He’ll never have me!” exclaimed La-ja tensely. “Before that, I’ll destroy myself.”

“Isn’t there something else you can do? Can’t you refuse to accept him?”

“If I were not a slave, I could; but Frug has promised me to him; and, being a slave, I have nothing to say in the matter.”

Van Horst suddenly felt a keen personal interest—just why, it would have been difficult for him to explain. Perhaps it was the man’s natural reaction to the plight of a defenseless girl; perhaps her great beauty had something to do with it. But whatever the cause, he wanted to help her.

“Isn’t there any possibility of escape?” he asked. “Can’t we get out of here after dark? Dangar and I would help you and go with you.”

“After dark?” she asked. “After what is dark?” Van Horst grinned ruefully. “I keep forgetting,” he said.

“Forgetting what?”

“That it is never dark here.”

“It is dark in the caves,” she said.

“In my country it is dark half the time. While it is dark, we sleep; it is light between sleeps.”

“How strange!” she exclaimed. “Where is your country, and how can it ever be dark? The sun shines always. No one ever heard of such a thing as the sun’s ceasing to shine.”

“My country is very far away, in a different world. We do not have the same sun that you have. Some time I will try to explain it to you.”

“I thought you were not like any man I had ever seen before. What is your name?”

“Von,” he said.

“Von—yes, that is a strange name, too.”

“Stranger than Skruf or Frug?” he asked, grinning.

“Why, yes; there is nothing strange about those names.”

“If you heard all of my name, that might sound strange to you.”

“Is there more than Van?”

“Very much more.”

“Tell it to me.”

“My name is Frederich Wilhelm Eric von Mendeldorf und von Horst.”

“Oh, I could never say all that. I think I like Von.”

He wondered why he had told her that Frederich Wilhelm Eric von Mendeldorf und von Horst was his name. Of course he had used it for so long that it seemed quite natural to him; but now that he was no longer in Germany, perhaps it was senseless to continue with it. Yet what difference did it make in the inner world? Von was an easy name to pronounce, an easy one to remember—Von he would continue to be, then.

Presently the girl yawned. “I am sleepy,” she said. “I shall go to my cave and sleep. Why do you not sleep at the same time; then we shall be awake at the same time, and—why, I can show you about your work.”

“That’s a good idea,” he exclaimed, “but will they let me sleep now? I just started to work.”

“They let us sleep whenever we wish to, but when we awaken we have to come right back to work. The women sleep in a cave by themselves, and there is a Basti woman to watch them and see that they get to work as soon as they are awake. She is a terrible old thing.”

“Where do I sleep?” he asked.

“Come, I’ll show you. It is the cave next to the women’s.”

She led the way out onto the ledge and along it to the mouth of another-cave. “Here is where the men sleep,” she said. “The next cave is where I sleep.”

“What are you doing out here?” demanded a guard.

“We are going to sleep,” replied La-ja.

The man nodded; and the girl went on to her cave, while von Horst entered that reserved for the men slaves. He found a number of them asleep on the hard floor, and was soon stretched out beside Dangar, who had accompanied them.

How long he slept, von Horst did not know. He was awakened suddenly by loud shouting apparently directly outside the entrance to the cave. At first he did not grasp the meaning of the words he heard; but presently, after a couple of repetitions, he was thoroughly awake; and then he grasped their full import and recognized the voice of the speaker.

It was Skruf; and he was shouting, over and over,

“Come out, La-ja! Skruf has brought you the head of a tarag. Now you belong to Skruf.”

Von Horst leaped to his feet and stepped out onto the ledge. There, before the entrance to the adjoining cave, lay the rotting head of the tarag; but Skruf was nowhere in sight.

At first von Horst thought that he had entered the cave in search of La-ja; but presently he realized that the voice was coming from below. Looking over the edge of the ledge, he saw Skruf standing on a ladder a few feet below. Then he saw La-ja run from the cave, her countenance a picture of tragic despair.

He had stepped to the head of the ladder, beside which lay the tarag’s head, and so was directly in front of the mouth of the cave as La-ja emerged. Something about her manner, her expression, frightened him. She did not seem to see him as she ran past him toward the edge of the cliff. Intuitively, he knew what was in her mind; and as she passed him, he threw an arm about her and drew her back.

“Not that, La-ja,” he said quietly.

She came to herself with a start, as though from a trance. Then she clung to him and commenced to sob. “There is no other way,” she cried. “He must not get me.”

“He shall not,” said the man; then he looked down upon Skruf. “Get out of here,” he said, “and take your rotten head with you.” With his foot, he pushed the mass of corruption over the edge of the ledge so that it fell full upon Skruf. For an instant it seemed that it had toppled him from the adder, but with the agility of a monkey he regained his hold.

“Go on down,” directed von Horst, “and don’t come up here again. This girl is not for you. “

“She belongs to me; Frug said I could have her. I’ll have you killed for this.” The man was almost frothing at the mouth, so angry was he.

“Go down, or I’ll come down there and throw you down,” threatened von Horst.

A hand was laid on his shoulder. He swung around. It was Dangar who stood beside him. “Here comes the guard,” he said. “You are in for it now. I am with you. What shall we do?”

The guard was coming along the ledge, the same big fellow that had received them. There were other guards in the several caves that were being excavated, but so far the attention of only this one seemed to have been attracted.

“What are you doing, slave?” he bellowed. “Get to work! What you need is a little of this,” He swung a club in his hairy right fist.

“You’re not going to hit me with that,” said von Horst. “If you come any closer, I’ll kill you.”

“Your pistol, Von,” whispered Dangar.

“I can’t waste ammunition,” he replied.

The guard had paused. He seemed to be attempting to discover just how the slave intended killing him and with what. To all appearances the man was unarmed; and while he was tall, he was far from being as heavy a man as the guard. Finally the fellow must have concluded that von Horst’s words were pure bluff, for he came on again.

“You’ll kill me, will you?” he roared; then he rushed forward with club upraised.

He was not very fast on his feet, and his brain was even slower—his reactions were pitifully retarded. So when von Horst leaped forward to meet him, he was not quick enough to change his method of attack in time to meet the emergency. Von Horst stepped quickly to one side as the fellow lunged abreast of him; then he swung a terrific blow to the Bastian’s chin, a blow that threw him off balance on the very brink of the ledge. As he tottered there, von Horst struck him again; and this time he toppled out into space; and, with a scream of fright, plunged down toward the bottom of the cliff a hundred feet below.

Dangar and the girl stood there wide-eyed in consternation.

“What have you done, Von!” cried the latter. “They will kill you now—and all on my account,”

Even as she spoke, another guard emerged from one of the caves farther along the ledge; and then the remaining two came from the other caves in which they had been directing the work of the slaves. The scream of the fellow that von Horst had knocked from the ledge had attracted their attention.

“Get behind me,” von Horst directed La-ja and Dangar, “and fall back to the far end of the ledge. They can’t take us if they can’t get behind us,”

“They’ll have us cornered then, and there will be no hope for us,” objected the girl. “If we go into one of the caves where it is not so light and where there are loose bits of rock to throw at them we may be able to hold them off. But even so, what good will that do? They will get us anyway, no matter what we do,” .

“Do as I tell you,” snapped von Horst, “and be quick about it,”

“Who are you to give me orders?” demanded La-ja. “I am the daughter of a chief.”

Von Horst wheeled and pushed her back into Dangar’s arms. “Take her to the far end of the ledge,” he ordered; then he fell back with them, as Dangar dragged the furious La-ja along the ledge. The guards were advancing toward the three. They did not know exactly what had happened, but they knew that something was wrong.

“Where is Julp?” demanded one.

“Where you will be if you don’t do as I tell you,” replied von Horst.

“What do you mean by that, slave? Where is he?”

“I knocked him off the ledge. Look down.” The three paused and peered over the edge. Below them they saw the body of Julp, and now the angry voices of those who had gathered about it rose to them. Skruf was there. He alone could surmise what had befallen Julp, and he was telling the others about it in a loud tone of voice as Frug joined the group.

“Bring that slave down to me,” Frug shouted to the guards on the ledge.

The three started forward again to seize von Horst. The man whipped his pistol from its holster. “Wait!” he commanded. “If you don’t wish to die, listen to me. There is the ladder. Go down.”

The three eyed the pistol, but they did not know what it was. To them it was nothing more than a bit of black stone. Perhaps they thought that von Horst purposed throwing it at them or using it as a club. The idea made them grin; so they came on, contemptuously.

Now, the woman who guarded the women slaves came from their cave, attracted by all the commotion outside, and joined the men. She was an unprepossessing slattern of indeterminate age with a vicious countenance. Von Horst guessed that she might be even more formidable than the men, but he shrank from the necessity of shooting down a woman. In fact, he did not wish to shoot any of them—poor ignorant cave dwellers of the stone age—but it was their lives or his and Dangar’s and La-ja’s.

“Go back!” he cried. “Go down the ladder. I don’t wish to kill you.”

For answer, the men laughed at him and came on. Then von Horst fired. One of the men was directly behind the leader, and at the shot they both collapsed, screaming, and rolled from the ledge. The other man and the woman stopped. The report of the pistol would alone have been sufficient to give them pause, so terrifying was it to them; but when they saw their comrades pitch from the ledge their simple minds were overwhelmed.

“Go down,” von Horst commanded them, “before I kill you, too. I shall not give you another chance.”

The woman snarled and hesitated, but the man did not wait. He had seen enough. He sprang toward the ladder and hastened to descend, and a moment later the woman gave up and followed him. Von Horst watched them; and when they had reached the next ledge below, he motioned Dangar to him. “Give me a hand with this ladder,” he said, and the two dragged it up to the ledge on which they stood. “This will stop them for awhile,” he remarked.

“Until they bring another ladder,” suggested Dangar.

“That will take a little time,” replied von Horst, “—a long time if I take a shot at them while they are doing it.”

“Now, what are we to do next?” inquired Dangar.

La-ja was eyeing von Horst from beneath lowering brows, her eyes twin pits of smoldering anger; but she did not speak. Von Horst looked at her and was glad that she did not. He saw trouble ahead in that beautiful, angry face—beautiful even in anger.

The other slaves were now coming fearfully from the caves. They looked about for the guards and saw none; then they saw that the ladder had been drawn up.

“What has happened?” one asked.

“This fool has killed three guards and driven the others away,” snapped La-ja. “Now we must either remain here and starve to death or let them come up and kill us.”

Von Horst paid no attention to them. He was looking up, scanning the face of the cliff that inclined slightly inward to the summit about thirty feet above him.

“He killed three guards and drove the others off the ledge?” demanded one of the slaves, incredulously.

“Yes,” said Dangar; “alone, he did it.”

“He is a great warrior,” said the slave, admiringly.

“You are right, Thorek,” agreed another. “But La-ja is right, too; it is death for us now no matter what happens.”

“Death but comes a little sooner; that is all,” replied Thorek. “It is worth it to know that three of these eaters of men have been killed. I wish that I had done it.”

“Are you going to wait up here until you starve to death or they come up and kill you?” demanded von Horst.

“What else is there to do?” demanded a slave from Amdar.

“There are nearly fifty of us,” said von Horst. “It would be better to go down and fight for our lives than wait here to die of thirst or be killed like rats, if there were no other way; but I think there is.”

“Your words are the words of a man,” exclaimed Thorek. “I will go down with you and fight.”

“What is the other way?” asked the man from Amdar,

“We have this ladder,” explained von Horst, “and there are other ladders in the caves. By fastening some of them together we can reach the top of the cliff. We could be a long way off before the Bastians could overtake us, for they would have to go far down the gorge before they came to a place where they could climb out of it.”

“He is right,” said another slave.

“But they might overtake us,” suggested another who was timid.

“Let them!” cried Thorek. “I am a mammoth man. Should I fear to fight with my enemies? Never. All my life I have fought them. It was for this that my mother bore me and my father trained me.”

“We talk too much,” said von Horst. “Talk will not save us. Let those who wish to, come with me; let the others remain here. Fetch the other ladders. See what you can find with which to fasten them together.”

“Here comes Frug!” shouted a slave. “’He is coming up with many warriors.”

Von Horst looked down to see the hairy chief climbing upward toward the ledge; behind him came many warriors. The man from the outer crust grinned, for he knew that his position was impregnable.

“Thorek,” he said, “take men into the caves to gather fragments of rock, but do not throw them down upon the Bastians until I give you the word.”

“I am a mammoth man,” replied Thorek, haughtily. “I do not take orders from any but my chief.”

“Right now I am your chief,” snapped von Horst. “Do as I tell you. If each of us tries to be chief, if no one will do as I order, we may stay here until we rot.”

“I take orders from no man who is not a better man than I,” insisted Thorek.

“What does he mean, Dangar?” asked von Horst.

“He means you’ll have to fight him—and win—before he’ll obey you,” explained the Sarian.

“Are all the rest of you fools too?” demanded von Horst. “Do I have to fight each one of you before you will help me to help you escape?”

“If you defeat Thorek, I will obey you,” said the man from Amdar.

“Very well, then,” agreed von Horst. “Dangar, if any of these idiots will help you, go in and get rocks to hold off Frug until the matter is settled. Just try to keep them from setting up another ladder to this ledge. Thorek, you and I will go into one of the caves and see who is head man. If we tried to decide the matter out here, we’d probably both wind up at the bottom of the cliff.”

“All right,” agreed the mammoth man. “I like your talk. You will make a great chief—if you win; but you won’t. I am Thorek, and I am a mammoth man.”

Von Horst was almost amused by the evidences of haughty pride that these primitive people revealed. He had seen it in La-ja in an exaggerated form and now, again, in Thorek. Perhaps he admired them a little for it—he had no patience with spineless worms—but he felt that they might have mixed a little common sense with it. He realized, however, that it reflected a tremendous ego, such as the human race must have possessed in its earliest stages to have permitted it to cope with the forces that must constantly have threatened it with extinction.

He turned to Thorek. “Come,” he said; “let’s get it over, so that something worth while can be done.” As he spoke, he entered one of the caves; and Thorek followed him.

“With bare hands?” asked von Horst.

“With bare hands,” agreed the mammoth man..

“Come on, then.”

Von Horst, from boyhood, had been a keen devotee of all modes of defense and offense with various weapons and with none at all. He had excelled as an amateur boxer and wrestler. Heretofore it had availed him little of practical value, other than a certain prideful satisfaction in his ability; but now it was to mean very much indeed. It was to establish his position in the stone age among a rugged people who admitted no superiority that was not physical.

At his invitation, Thorek charged down upon him like a wild bull. In height they were quite evenly matched, but Thorek was stockier and outweighed von Horst by ten or fifteen pounds. Their strength was, perhaps, about equal, though the Pellucidarian looked far more powerful because of his bulging muscles. It was skill that would count, and Thorek had no skill. His strategy consisted in overwhelming an antagonist by impetus and weight, crushing him to earth, and pummeling him into insensibility. If he killed him in the process—well, that was just the other fellow’s tough luck.

But when he threw himself at von Horst, von Horst was not there. He had ducked beneath the flailing arms and sidestepped the heavy body; then he had landed a heavy blow at Thorek’s jaw that had snapped his head and dazed him. But the fellow still kept his feet, turned, and came lumbering in again for more; and he got it. This time he went down. He tried to stagger to his feet, and another blow sent him sprawling. He didn’t have a chance. Every time he got part way to his feet, he was knocked flat again. At last he gave up and lay where he had fallen.

“Who is chief?” demanded von Horst.

“You are,” said Thorek.

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