Back to the Stone Age

Chapter IX

The Charnel Caves

Edgar Rice Burroughs

VON HORST experienced a sensation of peace and well being. He was vaguely aware that he was awakening from a long and refreshing sleep. He did not open his eyes. He was so comfortable that there seemed no reason to do so, but rather to court a continuance of the carefree bliss he was enjoying.

This passive rapture was rudely interrupted by a growing realization that his head ached. With returning consciousness his nervous system awoke to the fact that he was far from comfortable. The sensation of peace and well being faded as the dream it was. He opened his eyes and looked up into the face of La-ja, bending solicitously close above his own. His head was pillowed in her lap. She was stroking his forehead with a soft palm. .

“You are all right, Von?” she whispered. “You will not die?”

He smiled up at her, wryly. “‘O Death! Where is thy sting?’ “ he apostrophized.

“It didn’t sting you,” La-ja assured him; “it hit you with its paw.”

Von Horst grinned. “My head feels as though it had hit me with a sledge hammer. Where is it? What became of it?” He turned his head painfully to one side and saw the dinosaur laying motionless near them.

“It died just as it struck you,” explained the girl. “You are a very brave man, Von.”

“You are a very brave girl,” he retorted. “I saw you running in to help me. You should not have done that.”

“Could I have stood and watched you being killed when you had deliberately drawn the charge of the zarith upon yourself to save .me?”

“So that is a zarith?”

“Yes, a baby zarith,” replied the girl. “It is well for us that it was not a full grown one, but of course one would never meet a full grown zarith in a forest.”

“No? Why not?”

“For one reason they are too big; and, then, they couldn’t find any food here. A full grown zarith is eight times as long as a man is tall. It couldn’t move around easily among all these trees; and when it stood up on its hind feet, it’d bump its head on the branches. They kill thags and tandors and other large game that seldom enters the forests—at least not forests like this one.”

Von Horst whistled softly to himself as he tried to visualize a reptile nearly fifty feet in length that fed on the great Bos, the progenitors of modern cattle, and upon the giant mammoth. “Yes,” he soliloquized, “I imagine it’s just as well that we ran into Junior instead of papa. But, say, La-ja, what became of that man-thing the zarith was chasing?”

“He never stopped running. I saw him looking back after you made the loud noise with that thing you call peestol; but he did not stop. He should have come back to help you, I think; though he must have thought that you were sick in the head not to run. It takes a very brave man not to run from a zarith.”

“There wasn’t any place to run. If there had been, I’d still be running.”

“I do not believe that,” said La-ja. “Gaz would have run, but not you.”

“You like me a little better, La-ja?” he asked. He was starved for friendship—for even the friendship of this savage little girl of the stone age.

“No,” said La-ja, emphatically. “I do not like you at all, but I know a brave man when I see one.”

“Why don’t you like me, La-jar/” he asked a little wistfully. “I like you. I like you—a lot.” He hesitated. How much did he like her?

“I don’t like you because you are sick in the head, for one thing; for another, you are not of my tribe; furthermore, you try to order me around as though I belonged to you.”

“I’m sure sick in the head now,” he admitted; “but that doesn’t effect my good disposition or my other sterling qualities, and I can’t help not being a member of your tribe. You can’t hold that against me. It was just a mistake on the part of my father and mother in not having been born in Pellucidar; and really you can’t blame them for that, especially when you consider that they never even heard of the place. And, La-ja, as for ordering you around; I never do it except for your own good.”

“And I don’t like the way you talk sometimes, with a silent laugh behind your words. I know that you are laughing at me—making fun of me because you think that the world you came from is so much better than Pellucidar—that its people have more brains.”

“Don’t you think that you will ever learn to like me?” he asked, quite solemn now.

“No,” she said; “you will be dead before I could have time.”

“Gaz, I suppose, will attend to that?” he inquired.

“Gaz, or some other of my people. Do you think you could stand now?”

“I am very comfortable,” he said. “I have never had such a nice pillow.”

She took his head, quite gently, and laid it on the ground; then she stood up. “You are always laughing at me with words,” she said.

He rose to his feet. “With you, La-ja; never at you,” he said.

She looked at him steadily as though meditating his words. She was attempting, he was sure, to conjure some uncomplimentary double meaning from them; but she made no comment.

“Do you think you can walk?” was all that she said.

“I don’t feel much like dancing even a saraband,” he replied, “but I think I can walk all right. Come on, lead the way to Lo-har and the lightsome Gaz.”

They resumed their journey deeper into the gloomy wood, speaking seldom as they toiled up the steep ascents that constantly confronted them. At length they came to a sheer cliff that definitely blocked their further progress in a straight line. La-ja turned to the left and followed along its foot. As she did not hesitate or seem in the slightest doubt, von Horst asked her why she turned to the left instead of to the right. “Do you know the shortest way when you cannot go in a straight line?” he asked.

“No,” she admitted; “but when one does not know and cannot follow one’s head, then one should always turn to the left and follow one’s heart.”

He nodded, comprehendingly. “Not a bad idea,” he said. “At least it saves one from useless speculation.” He glanced up the face of the cliff, casually measuring its height with his eyes. He saw the same great trees of the forest growing close to the edge, indicating that the forest continued on beyond; and he saw something else—just a fleeting glimpse of something moving, but he was sure that he recognized it. “We are being watched,” he said.

La-ja glanced up. “You saw something?” she asked.

He nodded. “It looked like our white-haired friend, or another just like him.”

“He was not our friend,” remonstrated the literal La-ja.

“I was laughing with words, as you say,” he explained.

“I wish that I liked you,” said La-ja.

He looked at her in surprise. “I wish that you did, but why do you wish it?”

“I would like to like a man who can laugh in the face of danger,” she replied.

“Well, please try; but do you really think that fellow is dangerous? He didn’t look very dangerous when we saw him presenting the freedom of the forest to the zarith.”

She knit her brows and looked at him with a puzzled expression. “Sometimes you seem quite like other people,” she said; “and then you say something, and I realize that your head is very sick.”

Von Horst laughed aloud. “I opine that the twentieth century brand of humor doesn’t go so well in the Pleistocene.”

“There you go again!” she snapped. “Even my father, who is very wise, would not know what you were talking about half the time.”

As they moved along the foot of the cliff, they kept constantly alert for any further sign that they were being watched or followed.

“What makes you think that this white-haired man is dangerous?” he asked.

“He alone might not be dangerous to us: but where there is one there must be a tribe, and any tribe of strange people would be dangerous to us. We are in their country. They know the places where they might most easily set upon us and kill us. We do not know what is just beyond the range of our vision.

“If this is the Forest of Death, the people who dwell here are dangerous because they are not as other men. I have heard it said. None of my people who are living has ever been here, but stories handed down from father to son tell of strange things that have happened in the Forest of Death. My people are brave people, but none of them would go to that forest. There are things in Pellucidar that warriors cannot fight with weapons. It is known that there are such things in the Forest of Death. If we are indeed in it, we shall never live to reach Lo-har.”

“Poor Gaz!” exclaimed van Horst.

“What do you mean?”

“I am sorry for him because he will not have the pleasure of killing me or taking you for his mate,”

She looked at him in disgust, continuing on in silence. They both watched for signs of the trailers they were sure were following them; but no sound broke the deathly silence of the wood, nor did they see aught to confirm their suspicions; so at length they decided that whatever it was they had seen at the cliff top had departed and would not molest them.

They came to the mouth of a cave in the cliff; and as they had not slept for same time, von Horst suggested that they go in and rest. His head still ached, and he felt the need of sleep. The mouth of the cave was quite small, making it necessary for von Horst to get down on his hands and knees and crawl in to investigate. He shoved his spear in ahead of him and felt around with it to assure himself that no animal was lairing in the darkness of the interior as well as to discover if the cave were large enough to accommodate them.

Having satisfied himself on both these points, he entered the cave; and a moment later La-ja joined him. A cursory exploration assured them that the cave ran back same little distance into the cliff, but as they were only interested in enough space wherein to sleep they lay down close to the entrance. Von Horst lay with his head to the opening, his spear ready to thrust at any intruder that might awaken him. La-ja lay a few feet from him farther back in the cave. It was very dark and quiet. A gentle draft of fresh air came through the entrance dispelling the damp and musty odors which von Horst had come to expect in caves. Soon they were asleep.

When von Horst awoke, his head no longer ached; and he felt much refreshed. He turned over on his back and stretched, yawning.

“You are awake?” asked La-ja.

“Yes. Are you rested?”

“Entirely. I just woke up.”


“Yes, and thirsty, too,” she admitted.

“Let’s get started, then,” he suggested. “It looks as though we’d have to get out of this forest before we find food.”

“All right.” she said, “but what makes it so dark out?”

Von Horst got to his knees and faced the entrance to the cave. He could see nothing. Even the gloom of the forest had been blotted out. He thought it possible that he had become turned around in his sleep and was looking in the wrong direction, but no matter which way he turned he was confronted always by the same impenetrable blackness.. Then he crawled forward, feeling with his hands. Where he had thought the entrance to be he found the rounded surface of a large boulder. He felt around its edges, discovering loose dirt.

“The entrance has been blocked up, La-ja,” he said.

“But what could have done it without awakening us?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” he admitted, “but in some way the mouth of the cave has been filled with a boulder and loose dirt. There isn’t a breath of air coming in as there was when we entered.”

He tried to push the boulder away, but he could not budge it. Then he started to scrape away the loose dirt, but what he scraped away was replaced by more sifting in from the outside. La-ja came to his side and they exerted their combined weight and strength in an effort to move the boulder, but to no avail.

“We are penned up here like rats in a trap,” said von Horst in deep disgust.

“And with our air supply shut off well suffocate if we don’t find some way to get out.”

“There must be another opening,” said von Horst.

“What makes you think so?” asked the girl.

“Don’t you recall that when we came in there was a draft of air entering from the outside?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s right; there was.” “Well, if the air came in this entrance in a draft, it must have gone out some other opening; and if we can find that opening, perhaps we can get out, too.” “Do you suppose the white-haired man and his people blocked the entrance?” asked La-ja.

“I imagine so,” replied von Horst. “It must have been men of some kind; no animal could have done it so quietly as not to have awakened us; and, of course, for the same reason, an earthquake is out of the question.”

“I wonder why they did it?” mused the girl.

“Probably an easy and safe way to kill strangers who come to their country,” suggested von Horst.

“Just let us starve to death or suffocate,” said the girl in disgust. “Only cowards would do that.”

“I’ll bet Gaz would never do anything like that,” said von Horst.

“Gaz? He has killed many men with his bare hands. Sometimes he bites the great vein in their neck and they bleed to death, and once he pushed a man’s head back until he broke his neck.”

“What a nice little play fellow!” “Gaz never plays. He loves to kill—that is his play.” “Well, if I’m going to meet him, I’ll have to get out of here. Let’s follow the cave back and see if we can find the other opening. Stay close behind me.” Von Horst rose slowly to gauge the height of the cave and found that they could stand erect; then he groped his way cautiously toward the rear, touching a wall with one hand. He moved very slowly, feeling ahead with each foot for solid ground before he planted it. They had not gone far when von Horst felt what appeared to be twigs and leaves beneath his feet. He stooped and felt of them. They were dry branches with dead leaves still clinging to them and long thick grasses. The floor of the cave here was strewn thickly with them.

“Must have been a sleeping place for some animal or perhaps for men,” he suggested. “I wish we had a light; I don’t like groping along in the dark like this.”

“I have my fire stones,” said La-ja. “If we had some tinder, I could light a bundle of these grasses.”

“I’ll make some,” said von Horst.

He stooped and cleared a place on the floor, exposing the bare ground; then he gathered some of the dried leaves and powdered them between his palms, making a little pile of the tinder on the bare ground.

“Come and try it, now,” he said. “Here,” he guided her hand to the tinder.

La-ja knelt beside him and struck her fire stones together close above the little single fragment, and it commenced to glow. La-ja bent low and blew gently upon it. Suddenly it burst into flame. Von Horst was ready with a bundle of the grasses he had gathered for the purpose, and a moment later he held a blazing torch in his hand.

In the light of the torch they looked about them. They were in a large chamber formed by the widening of the cave. The floor was littered with twigs and grasses among which were a number of gnawed bones. Whether it was the den of beasts or men, von Horst could not tell; but from the presence of the bedding he judged that it was the latter. Yet there was no article of cast-off clothing, no broken or discarded weapon or tool that he could find, no potsherds. If men had dwelt here they must have been of a very low order.

Before their torch burned low they gathered grasses and made a quantity of them, and thus supplied with the assurance of light for a considerable time they continued on through the large chamber into a narrow corridor that wound and twisted into the heart of the escarpment. Presently they came to another even larger chamber. This, too, bore evidence of having been inhabited; but the relics here were of a grisly nature. The floor was strewn with the bones and skulls of human beings. A foul odor of decaying flesh permeated the air of this subterranean charnel chamber.

“Let’s get out of here,” said von Horst.

“There are three openings beside the one we came in,” said La-ja. “Which one shall we take?”

Von Horst shook his head. “We may have to try them all,” he said. “Let’s start with the one farthest on our right. It may be as good a guess as any; and at best it’s only a guess, no matter which one we decide on.”

As they approached the opening they were almost overpowered by the stench that came from it, but von Horst was determined to investigate every possible avenue of escape; so he stepped through the opening into a smaller chamber. The sight that met his eyes brought him to a sudden halt. A dozen human corpses were piled against the far wall of the chamber. A single glance showed von Horst that there was no outer opening leading from the room; so he beat a hasty retreat.

One of the two remaining openings from the large chamber was smoke blackened, and on the floor of the cave just in front of it were the ashes and charcoal of many wood fires. It’s appearance gave von Horst an idea. He walked to the second opening and held his smoking torch close to it, but the smoke rose steadily; then he went to that before which fires had been built, and now the smoke from his torch was drawn steadily into the opening.

“This one must lead to the outer opening,” he said, “and it also served as a chimney when they cooked their feasts. Nice lot, whoever they are that inhabit these caves. I think I prefer Gaz. We’ll try this one, La-ja.”

A narrow corridor rose steeply. It was blackened with soot, and the draft that wafted continually up it was laden with the stench from the horror chambers below.

“It can’t be far to the top,” said von Horst. “The cliff didn’t look more than fifty feet high, and we have been climbing a little all the time since we first entered the cave.”

“It’s getting light ahead,” said La-ja.

“Yes, there’s the opening!” exclaimed von Horst.

Ten feet from the surface they passed the openings to two corridors or chambers, one on either side of the shaft they were ascending; but so engrossed were they in escaping from the foul air that surrounded them that they scarce noticed them. Nor did they see the forms lurking in the darkness just within.

La-ja was just behind von Horst. It was she who discovered the danger first—but too late. She saw hands reach out of one of the openings just as von Horst passed it, seize him, and drag him in. She voiced a cry of warning, and at the same instant she was seized and drawn into the opening on the opposite side.

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