Back to the Stone Age

Chapter XIII


Edgar Rice Burroughs

VON HORST sprang from his concealment and ran out into the open; and as he did so he reached for his gun, but his holster was empty. There was no time to go back and search for the weapon. He recalled loosening it in its holster before he plunged into the river, and now he assumed that it had fallen out at that time. It was a tragic loss; but there was nothing that he could do about it, and that which he saw before him tended to crowd all other considerations into the background. Running toward the river from out upon the plain and pursued now by the mammoth-men were three figures which he instantly recognized as La-ja and her abductors.

The trees that dotted both sides of the river grew closer together just ahead and formed a little forest toward which the three were running. Skruf had seized La-ja by a hand and was dragging her along, while Frug brought up the rear. Although La-ja was running it was evident that she was attempting to break loose from Skruf, and Frug was striking at her with a heavy switch in an effort to goad her to greater speed. It seemed certain that they would reach the forest ahead of the mammoth-men if nothing delayed them, though by a small margin. Perhaps then they might escape, yet La-ja was trying to delay them. Her only reason, as far as von Horst could imagine, was that she would prefer to be the captive of the mammoth-men than to remain a prisoner of the Bastians.

Uppermost in von Horsts mind was the desire to reach the great brute that was striking the girl. Never before in his life had the instinct to kill an enemy so overwhelmingly mastered him. He even forgot the menace of the advancing mammoth-men in the heat of his hate and blood lust.

He came diagonally upon the three from the side and a little to the rear, but so engrossed were they with one another and their flight that they did not see him until he was almost upon them and had shouted a curt command to Frug to stop striking the girl. A new fear was added to the terror already reflected in Skruf’s eyes, a new hope leaped to La-ja’s, a glad cry to her lips as she voiced the one word, “Von!” What a wealth of relief and hope were expressed in that single monosyllable! Surprise and rage were in Frug’s snarled recognition as he vouchsafed his reply and registered his contempt for the man by striking again at La-ja. And then, just at the edge of the wood, von Horst leaped for him, leaped for his throat; and the two went down, rolling on the flower starred turf in what each hoped was a duel to the death.

Both men were powerful; but Frug outweighed his antagonist by thirty pounds, an advantage that, however, was offset by von Horst’s agility and skill. All that was in the mind of either was to kill the other—everything else was forgotten. Each fought for a hold upon the other’s throat, each struck terrific blows at the other’s face. The caveman grunted and cursed; von Horst fought in silence. And thus the mammoth-men came upon them, surrounding them. A dozen leaped from their huge mounts and fell upon the two. These, too, were mighty men. They dragged the combatants apart and made them prisoners.

It was then that von Horst had an opportunity to look around for La-ja. She was nowhere in sight; neither was Skruf. The chief of the mammoth-men was looking for them, too; and when he saw that they were missing he sent a party of his men across the river in search of them. The remainder mounted the mammoths after having two of the great beasts swing von Horst and Frug to their heads in front of their riders; then, without waiting for the party that had gone in search of La-ja and Skruf, they set off again in the direction they had been going at the time the discovery of the three had interrupted their march.

The mammoth-men appeared very sure of themselves, so much so that they did not even bind their prisoners’ hands; which was the equivalent of saying that escape was impossible; nor did von Horst doubt but that such was the case. The leader and some of the others questioned him. They asked him his name, from what country he came, where he was going. they were gruff, unfriendly men; and it was easy to see that they hated all strangers. So accustomed was von Horst to this characteristic of Pellucidarians that he made no effort to assure them that he was friendly, reasoning, and rightly, that it would have been a waste of energy and breath.

As they moved on up the river they presently discovered a huge mammoth ahead of them. It was in the open, so that they could not stalk it; but evidently they particularly wished it.

“It is he,” said one. “I would know him as far as I could see him.”

“The trap did not get him,” commented the reader. “He is too wise to be fooled by traps.”

“What good would he be if we did catch him?” demanded another. “He is an ugly customer. Already he has killed ten men that we know of who hunted him. He could never be trained now, he is too old.”

“Mamth wishes him,” said the leader. “That is enough; Mamth is chief. He will use him in the little canyon. He will give us great sport.”

The great beast had been moving off across the plain when they first saw him; now he turned and faced them—a huge creature, larger than any of those the mammoth-men rode.

“It’s he all right,” said the warrior, upon whose mount von Horst rode; “it’s Ah Ara, Ma Rahna.”

It was then that von Horst first noticed the great patch of white hair on the animal’s left jowl. “Ah Ara, Ma Rahna; Old White, The Killer,” he mused. The killer! He realized now how foolhardy he had been in approaching the beast at all. The fact that he had not been killed suggested that the huge creature was not only endowed with great intelligence but with a well developed sense of gratitude. Only thus could he account for his being still alive.

The leader of the band issued some instructions, and the party spread out and started to circle Old White, which remained facing them, making no effort to escape.

“Trog’s going to try to drive him,” remarked the warrior with von Horst. “If he can bring in Ah Ara he will be a great man.”

“Can he?” asked von Horst.

The warrior shrugged. “The sun-bleached bones of ten warriors are a better answer than any living tongue can offer.”

Slowly the warriors drew around behind Ah Ara in a half circle; then they closed and moved forward. In the meantime the quarry had turned again to face them. His little eyes gleamed, his trunk weaved slowly to and fro as he rocked his head from side to side. The warriors commenced to shout and wave their spears. They came closer. It seemed incredible that the animal did not turn and break for freedom; but it did not—Ah Ara stood his ground.

Suddenly he raised his trunk and, with a loud scream, charged. Straight for the center of the line he came—a solid line, for the mammoths were touching side to side. He lowered his head; and when he struck, two mammoths were knocked down. As he passed over them he seized one of the riders and hurled him fifty feet; then as he passed over him, he trampled him. After that he appeared to pay no more attention to the party, but moved on majestically in the direction he had been going before the interruption. It seemed to von Horst that his whole manner screamed contempt for the man-things that had dared to delay him.

Trog shook his head ruefully and turned toward the river. The two felled mammoths came to their feet—one of them was riderless, but he followed on with the others. No one paid any attention to the mangled warrior lying on the plain. Perhaps he was dead, but he may not have been. It was evident to von Horst that these men held human life lightly and that they were without compassion. He wondered if Thorek would recall that he had suggested that they be friends should they meet again, for it was possible that he might meet him now that he was a prisoner of Thorek’s fellows. Prompted by this recollection of the man who had escaped from the Bastians with him he turned toward the warrior riding behind him.

“Do you know Thorek?” he asked.

“Yes; what do you know of him?” “We are friends.”

The warrior laughed. “No stranger is friend to a mammoth-man,” he said.

“Did Thorek return from Basti?” asked von Horst.

“No,” and then suddenly, “What is your name?” “Von. If Thorek were here he would tell you that we are friends.” “Well, perhaps Thorek was your friend; but no other mammoth-man will be. Friendship for a stranger is weakness in a warrior. Strangers are to be killed; that is why they are strangers. If there were no strangers there would be no one to kill except one another, and that would not be good for the tribe. We would soon kill. each other off. Men must fight and kill; it is the life blood of warriors.” Presently they came to the river and crossed it, keeping slightly above the regular ford; then Trog and some of the others dismounted and examined the ground in the trail leading in to the river. Von Horst watched them with amusement, for he recognized the spot well. He saw that the men were surprised and angry at what they discovered.

Ah Ara has been down here,” exclaimed Trog. “There is blood here; but where are the stakes? They have all been removed.”

“I saw mud and blood on the right side of Ah Ara as he passed close to me when he charged through our line,” volunteered a warrior.

“Yes; he was down here,” growled Trog. “We had him, but how could he have escaped?”

“He is very old and very wise,” said one.

“He could never be old enough or wise enough to pick the splinters from his pads and his side, to pick them all out of the ground,” remonstrated Trog. “That could only be done by a man.”

“Here are the foot-prints of a man,” exclaimed a warrior.

“But who would dare approach Ah Ara and take the splinters from him? Had a man done that we should find his body close by.” Trog shook his head. “I do not understand.”

They found the splinters where von Horst had tossed them aside, and they set them out again with great care and well concealed upon the opposite side of the river; then they mounted and rode back toward the hills from which they had been coming when von Horst first sighted them.

“We’ll get him yet,” remarked von Horst’s warrior.

“How?” asked the European.

“When he gets splinters in his feet the pain is so great that he cannot stand; the pads of a tandor are thick, but they are very sensitive. When we come back and find him down we put heavy thongs of mammoth hide about his neck. These are fastened to three mammoths on each side of him, mammoths trained for this work; then we take the splinters from the ground around him and from his pads and let him get up. After that it is easy. The six mammoths drag him until he tires of being choked. After that he will follow quietly.”

“Will you ever be able to train Ah Ara, provided you get him?” asked von Horst.

The warrior shook his head. “He would never be safe. Mamth will put him in the little canyon, and he will afford us much amusement.”

“In what way?” ‘

The warrior looked at von Horst and grinned. “I think you will find out soon enough,” he said,

After the party reached the foothills it followed a well worn trail that led up to a wide plateau upon which several mighty canyons debouched from the mountains beyond. The plateau was covered with lush grasses and was crossed by several streams that issued from the mouths of the canyons, into one of which Trog led his savage troop. The grandeur of the scenery within the canyon was impressive, and to such an extent that for the moment von Horst almost forgot the hopelessness of his situation. Within its narrow mouth the canyon widened into a lovely valley walled by precipitous cliffs that were broken occasionally by the narrow mouths of smaller canyons. A stream flowed through the bed of the canyon, trees and flowering shrubs grew in profusion, fish leaped in the river, and birds of weird, prehistoric shapes and coloration flew from tree to tree.

Von Horst sighed. “What a lovely place,” he thought, “if only La-ja and I were here alone.”

La-ja! What had become of her? Had she escaped from Skruf, or was she still his captive? She would have been better off here among the mammoth-men, or at least no worse off; for no one could have been more repugnant to her than Skruf. At least, were she here, she would have had one friend whom she might trust even though he were unable to do anything for her.

Von Horst. sighed. He had a premonition that he would never again see La-ja, and it suddenly occurred to him that this strange world was going to be a very much more terrible place to live in because of that. He realized that something had gone out of his life that nothing could replace. Perhaps it hurt his pride to admit it even to himself, for the girl had certainly given him sufficient proof on numerous occasions that he meant nothing whatever to her; yet he could not forget the pathetic longing note in her voice when she had recognized him and called to him just before the mammoth-men had separated them forever.

Depressed by this sad reverie, his future fate seemed to mean nothing to him. He did not care what the mammoth-men did to him. The sooner it was over, the better. Without a single companion for whom he cared, he might as well be dead as alive; for there was no chance that he might ever return to the outer world, nor little more that he would find Sari should he escape from his present predicament.

While he was occupied by these unhappy thoughts the troop turned into one of the smaller canyons, and shortly thereafter he saw the caves of the mammoth-men pitting the lace of the lofty cliff ahead. A considerable number of men, women, and children, were on the ground at the foot of the cliff where a grove of trees offered shelter from the noonday sun. Some of the women busied themselves around cooking fires; others were fashioning sandals or loin cloths. Men chipped laboriously at stone weapons in the making, scraped spear shafts into shape, or merely loafed at ease. At sight of the returning troop, they quit whatever had been occupying them and clustered about to inspect the prisoners and exchange gossip with the arriving warriors.

Trog looked very important. “Where is Mamth?” he demanded.

“He is in his cave, sleeping,” said a woman.

“Go and awaken him,” commanded Trog.

“Go yourself,” replied the woman; “I do not wish to be killed.”

Trog, who, with the other warriors of his party, had, dismounted, was standing near the woman; and at her refusal he swung his spear quickly and felled her with the haft, knocking her unconscious; then he turned to another woman. “Go and awaken Mamth,” he said.

The woman laughed in his face. “Guva has no man,” she said, “but I have. You will not knock me down with your spear. You would not have knocked Guva down if she had had one. Go and awaken Mamth yourself.”

“I am not afraid of your man,” blustered Trog.

“Then why don’t you knock me down,” taunted the woman, “for I am not going to awaken Mamth.”

The crowd gathered about commenced to laugh at Trog, adding to his discomfiture and his rage. He stood there, red in the face, swinging his spear to and fro and looking from one to another of them.

“What are you looking for?” demanded the woman, “—widows and orphans?”

“You will pay for this,” growled Trog; then his eyes alighted on von Horst. “Go and awaken Mamth.” he commanded.

The European grinned. “Where is he?” he asked.

Trog pointed to a cave entrance part way up the cliff. “He is in there,” he growled. “Get along with you!” He swung his spear, striking at von Horst. The prisoner dodged, and seizing the weapon wrenched it from Trog’s grasp; then he broke it across his knee and flung it on the ground at the mammoth-man’s feet.

“I am neither a woman nor a child,” he said; and, turning, started toward the cliff and Mamth’s cave, in his ears the shouts and laughter of the tribesmen.

“I kill!” shouted Trog, and started after him, drawing his stone knife.

Von Horst wheeled and waited the mad charge of the mammoth-man. Trog approached him at a run, brandishing his knife above his shoulder. When he struck, von Horst seized his wrist, turned quickly, stooped low and, drawing the man’s arm across his shoulder, hurled him over his head and heavily to the ground; then he continued on his way to the foot of the cliff and up the rude ladders that led to Mamth’s cave. Glancing back over his shoulder he saw Trog still lying where he had fallen, apparently insensible, while the crowd laughed uproariously, evidencing to von Horst that his act had not prejudiced them against him and, also, that Trog did not appear to be overly popular.

He wondered just how popular he himself would be with Mamth when he awakened him, for he had gathered from what he had just heard that Mamth did not relish being awakened from his sleep; and he had seen just how primitive these people were and how little control they had of their tempers—like primitive people everywhere, even those who were supposed to be civilized and yet had primitive minds. When at last he came to the mouth of the cave he looked in, but he could see nothing, because of the darkness of the interior. He shouted Mamth’s name in a loud voice and waited. There was no response. The laughter below had ceased. The watchers were waiting in tense expectancy the result of his temerity.

Von Horst shouted again, this time more loudly; and this time there was a response—a bull-like bellow and the sound of movement within. Then a perfect mountain of a man emerged from the cave, his hair disheveled, his beard awry, his eyes sleep bleared and bloodshot. When he saw von Horst he stopped in amazement.

“Who are you?” he demanded. “Why did you awaken Mamth? Do you wish to be killed?”

“I am a prisoner,” replied von Horst. “Trog sent me to awaken you because he was afraid to do it himself; and as for being killed, that is probably what I was taken prisoner for.”

“Trog sent you, did he?” demanded Mamth. “Where is he?”

Von Horst pointed toward the foot of the cliff where Trog still lay. Mamth looked down.

“What is the matter with him?” “He tried to kill me with a dagger,” explained the prisoner.

“And you killed him?”

“I don’t think so. He is probably merely stunned.”

“What did he wish of me?”

“He wished to show you the two prisoners he brought in. I am one of them.”

“He disturbed my sleep for that!” grumbled Mamth. “Now I cannot get to sleep again.” He pointed, to the ladder. “Go down.” Von Horst did as he was bid, and Mamth followed him. When they reached the ground Trog was regaining consciousness. Mamth went and stood over him.

“So-ho!” he exclaimed. “So you were afraid to come and awaken Mamth, but you sent a prisoner who might have sneaked into the cave and killed Mamth in his sleep. You are a fool. And you let the prisoner knock the wits from your head. You are a fine one to be sub-chief. What happened?”

“He must have hit me over the head with a big rock when I wasn’t looking,” said Trog.

“He did not,” cried a woman. “Trog was going to hit the prisoner with his spear. The prisoner took Trog’s spear from him and broke it in two. There it lies. Then Trog tried to kill the prisoner with his knife. The prisoner picked Trog up and threw him over his head.”

A number of them commenced to laugh as the woman recalled the events, but they did not laugh so loudly in the presence of Mamth.

The chief looked searchingly at von Horst. “So you broke Trog’s spear and then threw him over your head!” he exclaimed. “Where is the other prisoner?”

“Here,” said one of the warriors guarding Frug.

Mamth looked at the Bastian. “He is even bigger than the other,” he said. “They should furnish us good sport in the little canyon. Take them away. Gorph, take this one to your cave and see that he does not escape.” He jerked a thumb toward von Horst. “Truth, you take charge of the other. Have them ready when Mamth wishes them. Trog, you are no longer a sub-chief. Mamth will appoint a better man.”

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