Back to the Stone Age

Chapter XII

Mammoth Men

Edgar Rice Burroughs

FROM THE FOOT of the cliff where the cave lay, the plain stretched away knee deep in lush grasses; and from his position above, von Horst saw where a new trail had been recently trampled toward the left. That was the direction which Frug had said he and Skruf would take to avoid the Forest of Death on their return to Basti. The grass was not trampled out across the plain in the direction of Lo-har; there was just the one plain trail toward the left—a trail that would be easy to follow as long as it ran through the deep grass.

Von Horst wished that he knew how long he had slept, so that he might have some idea of the start the abductors had; for he was certain that they were abductors. It was inconceivable that La-ja would have accompanied them back to Basti voluntarily. The trail appeared quite plain from above, but when he reached the foot of the cliff he saw that it was not so apparent. A close examination showed that only the grasses that had been actually crushed and broken by the passage of the three remained down to mark the trail; all others had returned to their normal positions. It was this discovery that gave von Horst greatest concern, as it seemed to indicate that the two men and the girl were far ahead of him.

At the foot of the cliff there were some indications of a struggle. The grasses here had been crushed and broken over a considerable area. The man could visualize what had taken place. La-ja had tried to break away from her captors and had probably put up a good fight, but finally she had been overcome and carried away.

He stood looking along that dim trail that led away into a new unknown. It led away from Sari, to what unknown dangers he could not even guess. Should he follow it? And for what? There was little likelihood that he could overtake the three; and if they reached Basti, none that he could rescue the girl. Why should he wish to risk his life in an attempt to save her—an attempt that was almost certain to fail? She disliked him. She had not taken even decent precautions to hide the fact. And if he did rescue her it would be only to be killed by her savage fellow tribesmen for his pains. He thought of Gaz, the terrible man who crushed lives out with his bare hands.

Were he to turn in the opposite direction he might skirt that end of the forest and pick up Dangar’s trail. The thought of Dangar and the pleasurable anticipation of the friendly welcome awaiting him in Sari filled him with longing. He desired companionship; he longed to feel the warmth of a friend’s hand again, to see the light, of a friendly smile. He was tired of indifference, and enmity, and hatred. With a sigh, he turned back and followed the dim trail toward the left. Off there somewhere in the distance was a little figure with a wealth of golden hair, perhaps an ignis fatuus luring him to his doom.

“I wonder why I do it,” he said half aloud; and then he shrugged his shoulders and swung on into the unknown.

Profiting by past experience and the schooling he had received from Dangar, he kept in mind constantly the necessity of directing his steps so that he would never be too far from some haven of safety were he threatened by any of the savage creatures that haunt the Pellucidarian scene. Trees were the prime factor in his defensive strategy. Never before had trees loomed so large in his consciousness, and all too often did he have to seek sanctuary among their branches. Now it would be a huge cave lion that drove him to shelter; again a mighty tarag, or some fearsome reptile of a forgotten age.

Along the route that he followed he found the places that Frug and Skruf and La-ja had slept; and here he slept, too. For food he had the eggs of birds and reptiles, fruits that grew upon some of the trees or bushes along his route, and various edible tubers that Dangar or La-ja had taught him to find and recognize. He made fire as had his primitive progenitors who trod the outer crust with the bos and the cave bear, and he took the time to fashion a new bow and arrows that he might have meat without wasting his precious ammunition. A sturdy spear he fashioned, too, its tip fire hardened as were the tips of his arrows.

He tried-to make up for the time thus lost by pushing on throughout the endless day until utter exhaustion forced him to halt for sleep. Often, between his own sleeps, he passed one and sometimes two of the sleeping places of those he pursued; and this assurance that he was gaining on them heartened him and spurred him on, yet there were times when his quest seemed utterly hopeless and discouragement sat heavily upon him. The great forest seemed to run on interminably, but at last it ended at the foot of a transverse range of rough hills. Here he had difficulty in following the trail, for the ground was no longer carpeted with tall grass but was oftentimes hard and stony.

Beyond the hills stretched another rolling plain through which wound a large river. He viewed it first from the summit of the pass that he had followed through the hills along an ancient trail worn deep by the feet of men and beasts through countless ages. There was a fringe of forest along the river and little patches of wood scattered about the plain which stretched away to his right to merge in the distance with what seemed the blue of an ocean. Ahead of him, far away, another forest bounded the plain upon that side, while to his left the hills curved around to meet the forest in the distance. Game dotted the landscape as far as the eye could reach. In the nearer foreground he could distinguish bos and red deer, antelopes, tapirs, sheep, and several species of herbivorous dinosaurs; while at the edge of the forest skirting the river he made out the huge forms of mammoths and giant sloths. It was a scene of such primitive beauty and interest that von Horst stood spellbound for several minutes, fascinated by its loveliness. For the moment he forgot everything but the scene below him; but presently his empty belly recalled him to the realities of life; so that it was no aesthete that crept silently down toward the plain, but a primitive hunter of the stone age. He followed the stream when he reached the foot of the hills, taking advantage of the cover offered by the trees that bordered it. He thought that he might get a sheep, several of which were grazing close to the fringing trees; but he knew how wary they were and how difficult to stalk.

The river wound in great loops, and to save time he took short cuts across the low hillocks which the river skirted in its wide bends like a great serpent gliding smoothly toward the sea. While he was below the summits of the hillocks he could not see the sheep, nor they him; yet he moved always cautiously since he never knew what dangers might confront him upon the hillocks’ opposite slopes, for the country was game filled; and where the herbivores are, there also are the flesh eaters.

As he topped one little hill he saw that which brought him to a sudden halt—a great, hairy mammoth lying upon its side moaning. It lay upon a small level flat beside the river at which was evidently a watering place or a ford, and not its moaning alone proclaimed that it was suffering but the agonized trembling of its huge bulk as well. Notwithstanding the fact that von Horst knew that these mighty beasts might be highly dangerous, there was ordinarily such a sweet placidity in their appearance and such a suggestion of dependability and intelligence in their great bulk and dignified mien that he was wont to be lulled into a feeling of security in their presence; and there had been aroused within him a considerable fondness and respect for these shaggy progenitors of the modern elephant.

To see one suffering thus filled him with compassion; and though his better judgment warned him against it, he could not resist the urge to approach more closely and investigate; though what he might accomplish was doubtless scarcely more than a nebulous conjecture in his mind. As he came closer the small eyes of the pachyderm discovered him; and it raised its head and trumpeted angrily, but it made no effort to rise. Thus assured that it was helpless, von Horst came close and examined it; and as he did so he discovered numerous sharp pointed splinters of bamboo protruding an inch or so above the surface of the mud, in which the beast lay at the river’s edge; so that he had to move with great care to avoid stepping on them.

Almost immediately he saw the cause of the beast’s helplessness and suffering—several of these splinters were imbedded in the sole of each great pad; so that the creature could not stand without suffering extreme agony. It was evident that the sharp stakes had been planted by men; and the purpose of them was quite apparent; for how more easily could men of the old stone age, with their primitive weapons, bring down the giant mammoth and render it helpless that they might dispatch it in safety?

The presence of the stakes suggested the proximity of men, and von Horst had already had sufficient evidence to convince him that all men in this savage world were enemies; yet, though he looked carefully in all directions, he saw no sign that any were about; then he turned his attention once more to the beast and its predicament. If he could remove the splinters and permit the mammoth to arise what might he expect from the pain racked creature? Von Horst ran his fingers through his hair dubiously; then the beast moaned again and so piteously that the man, casting discretion to the winds, decided to do what he could to assuage its suffering.

As he started to pick his way among the splinters closer to those huge pads, he realized that the beast would only be impaled upon others the moment it arose after he had removed those that it had already collected; so he set to work to pick the sharpened stakes from the ground over the entire area that they covered, a strip about twenty feet wide across the trail leading to the river; and as he worked, the eyes of the mammoth were on him constantly, watching his every move.

As he worked near the great beast’s head he noticed a patch of white hair the width of a man’s hand growing down the side of the animal’s cheek. He had seen many mammoths, but he had never seen one similarly marked. It gave the beast a strange, patriarchal expression, as though he wore an enormous white burnside. Von Horst noted the strange marking casually as he went about his work, but his principal interest was centered on speculation as to what the gigantic beast would do when it was able to rise. Some of the stakes were planted within reach of the mighty trunk; but the man gathered these, as he did the others, apparently unconcerned by the risk he took. And always the little eyes watched his every move, but whether in sullen hate or wary curiosity he could not guess.

At length came the time when all the stakes that he could locate had been removed, and the next were those embedded in the great pads. Without a moment’s hesitation von Horst walked to the hind feet of the pachyderm and, one by one, drew out the torturing slivers. Then he moved to the front feet, well within reach of the sinuous trunk and the great, curving tusks. Methodically, he commenced to remove the slivers from the fore pads, the powerful trunk weaving above him like a huge serpent.

He felt it touch him, the moist tip of it gliding over his naked body. It encircled him, but he paid no attention to it. He had invited death by a humane gesture, and he was game. The trunk wrapped about his torso—gently, almost caressingly. It did not tighten; it did not interfere with his work; yet he sensed it might close instantly at the slightest false move on his part. Death seemed very close.

When he had removed the last sliver he stood slowly erect. For a moment he waited; then, very gently, he laid hold of the trunk and sought to push it from him. There was no resistance. He moved unhurriedly, with great deliberation; yet he was under high nervous strain. At last he stood free and moved slowly away. He did not stop, but continued on along the river in the direction he had been going when he discovered the mammoth. For a moment he was obsessed by a powerful urge to run—to put as much distance between himself and the beast as he could before it regained its feet; but he did not. Instead, he moved on slowly, nonchalantly, casting an occasional glance behind him.

The beast lay quiet for a moment; then slowly it commenced to raise its bulk from the ground. Tentatively, it tried bearing its weight on its front feet; and it stood thus for a moment; then it rose and stood with all four feet on the ground. It took a few steps. Evidently its feet did not pain it greatly. It raised its trunk and trumpeted; then it moved off on the trail of the man.

At first, von Horst argued to himself that it was not following him and that presently it would turn aside and go about its own affairs, but it did not—it came steadily after him at a speed considerably in excess of that at which von Horst was walking. The man shrugged resignedly. What a sentimental fool he had been! He might have known that this savage beast could not feel gratitude. He should have left it alone or put it out of its misery with a single well placed bullet. Now it was too late. Presently it would overtake him and toss him. Such were his thoughts as he walked slowly along the trail. Overtake him it did. The sinuous trunk wrapped suddenly about him and he was lifted from the ground.

“This,” thought von Horst, “is the end.” The mammoth stopped and passed him back to its right side where it placed him on the ground; but it still let its trunk rest lightly about him, holding him facing its side; and what von Horst saw there awoke within him a realization of the sagacity of the animal, for this side, upon which it had lain, was thickly studded with bamboo slivers such as he had plucked from his feet. It wished the man to remove them as he had removed those others.

Von Horst breathed a sigh of relief as he set about his work, and when it was completed he once again moved on along the trail he had been following. From the tail of an eye he saw the mammoth swing about in its tracks and depart in the opposite direction. In a few moments it was lost to sight. The man felt that he was well out of a nasty situation that what he described to himself as maudlin sentimentality had gotten him into. But now that it was well over and he had seen the last of the great beast he was glad that he had gone to its aid.

His hunger, momentarily forgotten, manifested itself once more as he started to stalk the sheep again. From the summit of a rise he saw them, and again he was the primitive huntsman of the Pleistocene. Only a cartridge belt and a forty-five differentiated him in appearance from his progenitors of the stone age. From the next rise of ground that he mounted he saw the sheep again, much closer now; but he saw something else, far to the right across the river. At first glance he thought it only a herd of mammoths moving down a gently sloping plain from the foot-hills, coming toward the river; but instantly he recognized the truth—astride the neck of each of the great beasts rode a man.

The sight recalled to his memory Thorek, the mammoth-man of Ja-ru. These, indeed, must be mammoth-men; perhaps the country to which he had wandered was Ja-ru. However, the fact that he had been on friendly terms with Thorek induced no illusions as to the reception he might expect from the savage tribesmen of his erstwhile companion in slavery. Discretion counseled him to keep out of sight; and so he moved cautiously down the hill toward a clump of trees that grew beside the river, where, concealed from their view, he could still watch the approach of the company.

As he reached the trees he saw the embers of a camp fire still glowing; and his heart leaped in his bosom, for he knew that he was now close on the trail of La-ja and her abductors. Which way had they gone from here? They could not be far, for no matter how much the timelessness of Pellucidar might deceive the mind of man it could not befuddle the laws of combustion—fire would consume wood as quickly and embers would remain hot as long here as upon the outer crust and no longer.

He hastily examined the ground about the camp site. For the moment the mammoth-men were forgotten in contemplation of the nearness of La-ja and the surge of rage against Frug and Skruf, now almost within reach of his vengeance. He loosened the gun in its holster. He would give no quarter, but would shoot them down as he would a couple of mad dogs; nor was there a question of doubt as to the rightness of his contemplated act, so easily does man slough the thin veneer of inhibitions with which civilization conceals but does not eradicate primal instincts and characteristics of mankind. There were no laws here for him other than those he made himself.

His search revealed the footsteps of those he sought in the soft earth at the river’s edge. He recognized them all—the imprints of the great, splay feet of the men, those of La-ja, small and perfect. They led to the river and did not return. By that he knew that they had crossed. He looked in that direction and saw the mammoth-men steadily approaching. They were much nearer now, the long, swinging strides of the mammoths covering ground rapidly.

Trees and bushes grew upon the far bank of the river, grew in isolated clumps as though planted by the hand of some master landscape gardener. Between two such clusters of bushes he could still see the mammoth-men, but he could see to no great distance either to the right or left. He wished to cross the river in pursuit of those he sought, but he did not wish to attract the attention of the mammoth-men to him. Cautiously he moved down stream until a clump of bushes on the opposite bank hid him from the view of the approaching warriors; then, careless of the possible presence of dangerous reptiles, he plunged into the stream, which was neither wide nor swift. A few powerful strokes carried him to the opposite bank, where he again sought the trail of the trio. Nor did he have far to search, for he found it almost immediately leading out toward the plain where the mammoth-men rode.

To follow immediately would be to reveal his presence to the approaching warriors, who could not fail to see him should he expose himself now, as they were not over a quarter of a mile away. They had changed their course slightly and were moving up stream more nearly parallel, with the course of the river. Presently they would pass him, and he would be free to continue his search for La-ja. As he waited, he stood partially concealed behind a bush, only a little of his face showing. Thus he watched the mammoth-men. They were moving steadily upon their course, like soldiers of any age upon the march, the monotony of which lulls even exuberant spirits into quiescence. But suddenly there was a change. A rider looking toward the river suddenly halted his mount and shouted to his fellows, pointing back down stream at something evidently some distance below the point where von Horst was hiding. Simultaneously he started in the direction he had pointed, urging his lumbering mount into a swifter gait; and after him trooped the remainder of the company.

Savage, primitive to the degree was the sight of that war-like company to von Horst—extinct men upon extinct mounts; animated monuments of savage might. The European was thrilled; and, too, his curiosity was aroused. What had the warrior seen? What were they approaching or pursuing? Risking discovery, von Horst, moved stealthily around the end of the bush that had concealed him, until he could look down the valley in the direction the mammoth-men were riding.

At first he saw nothing. A tiny hillock, scarcely more than a mound, shut off his view. Assured that the attention of the riders was riveted upon whatever quarry lay ahead of them and that they would not notice him, von Horst crept forward to the mound and up its side until he could see beyond its summit. What he saw brought his heart into his mouth.

Back to the Stone Age - Contents    |     Chapter XIII - Captured

Back    |    Words Home    |    Edgar Rice Burroughs Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback