Back to the Stone Age

Chapter VIII

The Forest of Death

Edgar Rice Burroughs

DANGAR looked at von Horst with surprise as the latter announced that he was going with La-ja. “Why?” he asked.

Von Horst shook his head. “I do not know,” he replied. “I have one excellent reason, and that is that I could not see a girl go alone through this savage country, into that beastly looking forest; but I know that there is something else, much deeper, that impels me; something as inexplicable and inescapable as instinct.”

“I will come with you,” said Dangar.

Von Horst shook his head. “No. Go on to Sari. If I live, I’ll follow you later.”

“You could never find Sari.”

“With your help, I can.”

“How can I help you if I am not with you?” demanded Dangar.

“You can blaze the trail. Put marks on trees. Place stones upon the ground, like this, showing the direction you are going.” He placed some stones in a row pointing in the direction they had been going, forming an arrow. “Mostly you follow animal trails; so you will have only to indicate the places that you branch off from the main trails. If you will do these things, I can follow you. I shall blaze my trail from here to wherever I go; so that I can find my way back.” .

“I do not like to leave you,” said Dangar.

“It is best,” replied von Horst. “There is a girl waiting for you in Sari. There is no one waiting for me anywhere. We do not know how far it is to La-ja’s country. We might never reach it; we might never return if we did. It is best that you go on to Sari.”

“Very well,” said Dangar. “I shall be expecting you there. Good-by.” He turned and started off down the little valley.

Von Horst watched him for a moment, thinking of the strange circumstances that had brought them together across five hundred thousand years; thinking also of the even more remarkable fact that they had found so much in common upon which to build an enduring friendship. He sighed and turned in the direction that La-ja had gone.

The girl was half way to the forest, swinging along easily with her chin up and never looking back. She looked so little against the background of that mighty forest, and so brave. Something very much like tears momentarily dimmed the man’s eyes as he watched her; then he set out after her.

Something of what he was doing he realized, but not all. He knew that it was quite likely that he was following the girl into an untracked wilderness from which neither of them would ever emerge; and that he was cutting himself off, doubtlessly forever, from his only friend in all this savage world, from the chance to go to a country where he might live in comparative security and make new friends—and all this for a girl who shunned and snubbed him. But what he did not know was that Jason Gridley would eventually decide to remain in the inner world, when the rest of the expedition sailed for the north polar opening and the outer crust, and proceed to Sari, there to form an expedition to search for him. He did not know that he was quite probably throwing away this one chance for succor; but if he had known it, there is little likelihood that it would have altered his decision.

He overtook La-ja just at the edge of the forest. She had heard his footsteps behind her and had turned to see who or what was following her. She did not seem greatly surprised. In fact, it seemed to von Horst that nothing could surprise La-ja.

“What do you want?” she inquired.

“I am going with you to Lo-har,” he replied.

“The warriors of Lo-har will probably kill you when you get there,” she prophesied cheerfully.

“I am going with you just the same,” insisted von Horst.

“I did not ask you to come. You had better go back and go to Sari with Dangar.”

“Listen to me, La-ja,” he begged. “I cannot let you go alone, knowing the dangers you may have to face—wild beasts and savage men. I must go with you as long as there is no one else to go; so why can’t we be friends? Why do you dislike me so? What have I done?”

“If you come with me it will have to be as though we were friends—just friends—whether we are friends or not,” she replied, ignoring his last two queries. “Do you understand that—just as friends?”

“I understand,” .he said. “Have I ever asked more of you?”

“No.” She rather snapped the word.

“Nor shall I. My only thought is for your safety. When you are among your own people, I shall leave you.”

“If they don’t kill you before you can escape,” she reminded him.

“Why should they wish to kill me?” he demanded.

“You are a stranger; and we always kill strangers, so that they will not kill us—or nearly always. Sometimes, if we have reason to like them very much we let them live; but Gaz will not like you. He will kill you if the others don’t.”

“Who is Gaz? Why should he wish to kill me?”

“Gaz is a great warrior, a mighty hunter; single-handed he has killed a ryth.”

“I am not a ryth; so I still don’t see why he should wish to kill me,” insisted von Horst.

“He will not like it when he learns that we have been together for so many sleeps. He is a very jealous man.”

“What is he to you?” demanded von Horst.

“He hoped to mate with me before I was captured by the Bastian. If he has not taken another mate, he will still wish to. Gaz has a very quick temper and a very bad one. He has killed many men. Often he kills them first and then inquires about them later. Thus has he killed many men whom he would not have killed had he taken the time to discover that they had not harmed him.”

“Do you wish to mate with him?” asked von Horst.

She shrugged her shapely shoulders. “I must mate with some one, for I must bear sons that Lo-har may have a chief when my father dies; and La-ja would mate only with a mighty man. Gaz is a mighty man.”

“I asked you if you wished to mate with him—do you love him, La-ja?”

“I do not love anyone,” she replied; “and, furthermore, it is none of your affair. You are always meddling and asking questions that do not concern you. Come, if you are coming with me. We cannot get to La-har by standing still talking nonsense.”

“You will have to lead the way,” he said. “I do not know where Lo-har lies.”

They started on. “Where is your country?” she asked. “Perhaps it lies beyond La-har in the same direction. That would be fine for you, provided, of course, that you got out of Lo-har alive.”

“I do not know where my country is,” he admitted.

She knitted her brows and looked at him in astonishment. “You mean that you could not find your way home?” she demanded.

“Just that. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea even in which direction to start.”

“How strange,” she commented. “I have never heard of any so stupid as that, other than the poor creatures whose heads are sick. They know nothing at all. I have seen a few such. They get that way from blows on the head. Once a boy I knew fell out of a tree and landed on his head. He was never right again. He used to think he was a tarag and go roaring and growling about on his hands and knees, but one day his father got tired of listening to him and killed him.”

“Do you think I am like that boy?” asked von Horst.

“I have never seen you act like a tarag,” she admitted; “but you do have very peculiar ways, and in many things you are very stupid.”

Von Horst could not repress a smile, and the girl saw him. She appeared nettled. “Do you think it anything to laugh about?” she demanded. “Say, what are you doing? Why do you chop at so many trees with your knife? That is enough to make one think that there may be something the matter with your head.”

“I am marking the trail that we pass,” he explained, “so that I can find my way back after I leave you.”

She seemed very interested. “Perhaps your head is not so sick after all,” she said. “Even my father never thought of anything like that.”

“He wouldn’t have to if he can find his way about as easily as you Pellucidarians can,” von Horst reminded her.

“Oh, it is not always so easy to find our way any place except to our own countries,” she explained. “Take us anywhere in Pellucidar and we can find our way home, but we might not be able to find our way back again to the place we had been taken. With your method, we could. I shall have to tell this to my father.”

As they penetrated more deeply into the forest, von Horst was impressed by its strangely somber and gloomy atmosphere. The dense foliage of the tree tops formed an unbroken roof above their heads, shutting out all direct rays of the sun. The result was a perpetual twilight, with a temperature considerably lower than any he had experienced in the open—the two combining to retard the growth of underbrush, so that the ground between the boles of the trees was almost bare of anything other than a carpet of dead leaves. What few plants had had the hardihood to withstand these conditions were almost colorless—unhealthy, grotesque appearing forms that but added to the melancholy aspect of the repellent wood.

From the moment that they entered the forest the ground rose rapidly until they were climbing a very considerable ascent; then they suddenly topped a ridge and descended into a ravine, but the forest continued unbroken as far as they could see.

As La-ja crossed the ravine and started up the farther ascent, von Horst asked her why she didn’t try to find an easier way by following the ravine down until they reached the end of the hills.

“I am following a straight line to Lo-har,” she replied.

“But suppose you came to a sea?” he asked.

“I would go around it, of course,” she replied; “but where I can go at all, I go in a straight line.”

“I hope there are no Alps on our route,” he remarked, half aloud.

“I do not know what Alps are,” said La-ja, “but there will be plenty of other animals.”

“There will have to be more animals than we have seen since we got into this wood,” remarked von Horst, “if we are to eat. I haven’t seen even so much as a bird.”

“I have noticed that,” replied La-ja. “I have also noticed that there are no fruits or nuts, nor any other edible thing. I do not like this forest. Perhaps it is the Forest of Death.”

“What is the Forest of Death?” “I have heard of it. My people speak of it. It lies down some distance from Lo-har. In it live a race of horrible people who are not like any other people. Perhaps this is it.” “Well, we haven’t seen anything so far that could harm us,” von Horst reassured her.

They had climbed out of the ravine and were on more level ground. The forest seemed even denser than it had been farther back. Only a dim, diffused light relieved the darkness.

Suddenly La-ja stopped. “What was that?” she asked in a whisper. “Did you see it?”

“I saw something move, but I did not see what it was,” replied the man. “It disappeared among the trees ahead of us and to the right. Is that what you saw?”

“Yes. It was right over there.” She pointed. “I do not like this forest. I do not know why, but it is as though it were vile—unclean.”

Von Horst nodded. “It is eerie. I shall be glad when we are well out of it.”

“There!” exclaimed La-ja. “There it is again. It is all white. What could it be?”

“I don’t know. I just had the briefest glimpse of it; but I thought—I thought it was something almost human. It is so dark in here that it is difficult to discern objects clearly unless one is very close to them.”

They walked on in silence, keeping a sharp lookout in all directions; and von Horst noticed that the girl remained very close to him. Often her shoulder touched his breast as though she sought the reassurance of personal contact. He was doubly glad now that he had insisted upon coming with her. He knew that she would not admit that she was frightened; and he would not suggest it, but he knew that she was frightened. For some inexplicable reason—inexplicable to him—he was glad that she was. Perhaps it satisfied the protective instinct in him. Perhaps it made her seem more feminine, and von Horst liked feminine women.

They had gone some little distance from the point at which they had seen the mysterious creature moving among the trees, without seeing any other suggestion of life in the forest, when they were startled by a series of shrieks, mingled with which were roars and a strange hissing sound. They both stopped, and La-ja pressed close to von Horst. He felt her tremble ever so slightly; and threw an arm about her, reassuringly. The sounds were coming rapidly closer. The screams, sounding strangely human, were filled with terror and despair, rising to a piercing crescendo of fright. Then the author of them burst into view—a naked man, his face distorted by terror. And such a man! His skin was a dead white, without life or beauty; and his hair was white. Two great canine tusks curved downward to his chin, the pink irises of his eyes surrounded blood-red pupils to make an already repellent countenance still further hideous.

Behind him, hissing and roaring, galloped a small dinosaur. It was not much larger than a Shetland pony; but its appearance might easily have caused even the bravest of men misgivings, so similar was it in everything but size to the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex, the king of the tyrant reptiles of the Cretaceous.

At sight of La-ja and von Horst, the dinosaur veered suddenly in their direction and came hissing and roaring down upon them like a steam locomotive gone amuck. So close was it that there was not even time to seek safety behind a tree; and von Horst’s reaction was the natural and almost mechanical one of a man of his training. He whipped his revolver from its holster and fired; then he leaped quickly out of the path of the charging brute, dragging La-ja with him.

The dinosaur, badly hit, roared with rage, nearly going down. As it stumbled past him, the man fired again, placing a heavy .45 slug just behind the left shoulder. This time the beast fell; but knowing the remarkable life tenacity of the reptilia, von Horst was not over confident that all danger was past. Grasping La-ja by a hand, he ran quickly to the nearest tree, behind the bole of which they sought concealment. Above them and out of reach were the lowest branches—a perfect sanctuary that they could not gain. If the two bullets had not permanently stopped the dinosaur, their principal hope lay in the possibility that after it regained its feet, if it did not immediately see them it would go blundering off in the wrong direction.

From behind the tree, von Horst watched the beast pawing up the matted vegetation as it sought to regain its feet. He could see that it was far from dead, although badly hit. La-ja pressed close to him. He could feel her heart beating against his side. It was a tense moment as the dinosaur finally staggered up. For a moment it swayed as though about to fall again; then it swung slowly about in a circle, its muzzle raised, sniffing the air. Presently it started in their direction—slowly, cautiously. Its appearance now seemed far more menacing to von Horst than had its mad charge. It gave the impression of being a cold, calculating, efficient engine of destruction, an animated instrument of revenge that would demand an eye for an eye and not give up the ghost until vengeance had been achieved. It was coming straight toward the tree behind which they were hiding. Whether it had discovered the small portion of von Horst’s head that was revealed beyond the edge of the bole, the man did not know; but it was certainly coming toward them guided either by sight or by scent.

It was a tense moment for von Horst. For the instant he was uncertain as to what he should do. Then he decided. Leaning close to La-ja, he whispered, “The beast is coming. Run for that tree behind us, keeping this tree between you and the beast, so that it does not see you; then keep going from one tree to another until you are safely away. When it is dead I will call to you.”

“And what will you do? Will you come with me?”

“I’ll wait here to make sure that it dies,” he replied. “I can give it a few more shots if necessary.”

She shook her head. “No.” “Hurry!” he urged. “It is quite close. It is looking for us.” “I shall remain here with you,” said La-ja with finality.

From her tone of voice he knew that there was nothing more to be said. From past experience he knew his La-ja. With a shrug, he gave up the argument; then he looked out once more to see the dinosaur within a few paces of the tree.

Suddenly he leaped from behind the tree and started on a run across the front of the beast. He had acted so quickly that La-ja was stunned to inaction by surprise. But not the dinosaur. It did just what von Horst had hoped and believed it would. With a bellow of rage, it took after him. Thus he drew it away from the girl. This accomplished, he turned and faced the brute. Standing his ground, he fired rapidly from his automatic, placing his bullets in the broad chest. Yet the thing came on.

Von Horst emptied his weapon; the dinosaur was almost upon him; he saw La-ja running rapidly toward him, as though in an effort to divert the charge of the infuriated reptile with the comparatively puny spear that she carried. He tried to leap aside from the path of the charging beast, but it was too close. It rose upon its hind feet and struck at his head with a taloned fore paw, felling him, unconscious, to the ground.

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