Back to the Stone Age

Chapter XIV

“He Dies!”

Edgar Rice Burroughs

GORPH was a short, stocky, middle-aged man with a wealth of whiskers and small, close-set eyes. Von Horst judged him a mean customer even before the fellow gave any indication of his true nature, which he was not long in doing; for as soon as Mamth indicated that he was to take over the prisoner he stepped up to von Horst, seized him roughly by the shoulder and gave him a push toward the foot of the cliff and the nearest ladder.

“Get along!” he growled, “and be quick about it.” Then, without other reason than pure brutality, he prodded his prisoner in the back with the point of his spear—a vicious jab that brought blood. Resentment and rage flared in the breast of the man from the outer crust, the sudden pain goading him to instant action. He wheeled and crouched. Gorph, sensing attack, jabbed at him again with his spear; but von Horst pushed the weapon aside and leaped close, pinioning the mammoth-man’s head beneath his right arm; then he commenced to spin, faster and faster. Gorph’s feet left the ground, his body whirled, almost horizontal, in a flattening circle; von Horst released his hold and sent the fellow spinning to the ground.

Mamth broke into a loud guffaw, which was echoed by the other spectators. Gorph staggered dizzily to his feet; but before he was fully erect von Horst clamped the same hold upon him, and once again whirled and threw him. When Gorph arose this time, dizzy and befuddled, the other was standing over him. His fists were clenched, an arm was back ready to deliver a blow to the bewhiskered chin that would have put the mammoth-man out for good; but then his rage left him as suddenly as it had come.

“The next time you try anything like that on me, Gorph, I’ll kill you,” he said. “Pick up your spear and go along. I’ll follow.”

He had given no thought as to what the reaction of the other mammoth-men might be to his attack upon one of their fellows; nor had he cared; but their laughter assured him that they had enjoyed the discomfiture of Gorph, as they would probably enjoy the discomfiture of any creature. Gorph stood for a moment, hesitant. He heard the laughter and the taunts of his fellows. He was trembling with rage; but he looked at the man who had bested him, standing there waiting to best him again; and his courage proved unequal to his anger.

He stepped over to retrieve his spear, and as he passed von Horst he spoke in a low tone of voice. “I’ll kill you yet,” he said.

The European shrugged and followed him. Gorph walked to a ladder and started to ascend. “See that nothing happens to him, Gorph,” shouted Mamth. “He’ll be a good one for the little canyon.”

“You see,” remarked von Horst, “that between Mamth and me it’ll be best for your health that you treat me well.”

Gorph mumbled in his beard as he climbed to the third tier of caves, von Horst following him upward. Here the mammoth-man followed the wide ledge to the right and stopped before a large entrance in which squatted three women. One was middle-aged, the other two much younger. Of these, she who appeared to be the elder was short and squat like Gorph, an unprepossessing girl with a sinister countenance. Their only clothing was scanty loin-cloths.

“Who is that?” demanded the woman.

“Another mouth to feed,” grumbled Gorph; “one of the prisoners that Trog brought in. We keep him and guard him, but if he falls off the cliff it will not be my fault.”

The elder of the two girls grinned. “He might,” she said.

The man walked to the younger girl and kicked her. “Get me food,” he growled, “and be quick about it.”

The girl winced and scurried into the cave. Gorph squatted beside the other two women. The elder was fashioning a pair of sandals with soles of mammoth-hide; the other just sat staring vacantly at nothing.

Gorph eyed her, scowling. “How much longer shall I have to hunt for you, Grum?” demanded Gorph. “Why don’t you get a man? Won’t any of them have you?”

“Shut up,” growled Grum. “If they won’t have me it’s because I look like you—because I am like you. If you’d been a woman you’d never have had a mate. I hate you.”

Gorph leaned over and struck her in the face. “Get out of here!” he cried; “go get yourself a man.”

“Leave her alone,” said the older woman wearily.

“Keep out of this,” warned Gorph, “or I’ll kick your ribs in.”

The woman sighed.

“That is all that Mumal does,” sneered Grum. “She just sits and sighs—she and that monkey-faced Lotai. Sometimes I could kill them both.”

“You are a bad daughter,” said Mumal. “The time that I bore you was a bad time indeed.”

“Get out!” growled Gorph. “I told you to get out.” He pointed a stubby finger at Grum.

“Try to put me out,” snapped the girl. “I’d scratch out your eyes. Get me a man. If you were any good you’d get men for both your daughters. You’re a coward. You’re afraid to fight men for us.”

“If I ever made a man marry you he’d sneak up behind me in the woods the first chance he got and kill me.”

“I’d help him,” said Grum.

“Lotai!” bellowed Gorph. “Where is the food?”

“Coming!” called the girl from the interior of the cave, and a moment later she came with a handful of dried meat. She tossed it on the ground in front of Gorph and backed away to the far corner of the entrance, where she sat in huddled misery.

Gorph attacked the meat like a ravenous wolf, breaking off great hunks between his powerful teeth and swallowing them whole.

“Water!” he snapped, when he had finished.

The girl called Lotai arose and hurried back into the cave. A moment later she returned with a gourd which she handed to Gorph.

“That is all,” she said; “there is no more water.” Gorph gulped it down and arose. “I am going to sleep now,” he said. “I’ll kill anyone who awakens me. Mumal, you and Grum go for water. Lotai, watch the prisoner. If he tries to escape, scream; and I’ll come out and—”

“And what?” inquired von Horst.

“Do as I told you,” said Gorph to the women, ignoring von Horst’s query; then he lumbered into the cave.

The two older women followed him, returning shortly each with a large gourd; then they descended the ladders on their way for water. Von Horst looked at the young girl who had been left to guard him. Now that the others had gone the strained expression that had clouded her face had disappeared, and she was more beautiful than before.

“Happy family,” he remarked.

She looked at him questioningly. “Do you think so?” she asked. “Perhaps the others are happy, though they do not seem so. I know that I am not.”

Once again von Horst was faced with the literal-mindedness of the stone age. He was reminded of La-ja.

“I was only laughing with words,” he explained.

“Oh,” she said, “I see. You do not really think that we are happy?”

“Is it always like this?” he demanded.

“Sometimes it is worse; but when Mumal and I are alone, we are happy. Grum hates me because I am pretty and she is not; Gorph hates everyone. I think he even hates himself.”

“It is strange that you have no mate,” said von Horst; “you are very good looking.”

“No man will take me because he would have to take Grum, too, if Gorph insisted—that is a law of the mammoth-men. You see, she is older than I; and should have a man first.” .

“What did Grum mean when she said that Gorph was afraid to fight men for you?”

“If we picked out men that we wanted they would have to take us if Gorph fought them and won; but I would not wish a man that way. I would wish my man to want me so much that he would fight to get me.”

“And that is the only way that Grum could get a mate?” asked von Horst.

“Yes, because she has no brother to fight for her, nor any friend to do it for her.”

“You mean that any man who would fight for her could get her a mate?”

“Why, yes; but who would do it?” “A friend might,” he said; “or any man who wanted you badly enough.” She shook her head. “It is not so easy as that. If a man who was not her father or brother fought for her and lost, he would have to take her. And Grum has made it even worse by choosing Horg as the man she wishes to mate with. No one could defeat Horg. He is the biggest and strongest man in the tribe.” “Rather a precarious method of getting a mate,” mused von Horst. “If your man is vanquished, you get him; but you may get a corpse.” “No,” she explained. “They fight with bare hands until one of them gives up. Sometimes they are badly hurt, but seldom is anyone killed.” They sat in silence for a while, the girl watching the man intently. Von Horst was thinking of La-ja and wondering what fate had befallen her. He was sad in the knowledge that she had passed out of his life forever—the haughty, imperious little slave girl who hated him. He wondered if she really did hate him. There were times when he doubted that she did. He shook his head. Who could ever understand a woman? Lotai stirred. “What is your name?” she asked.

“Von,” he replied.

“I think you are a very nice man,” she said.

“Thank you. I think you are a very nice girl.” “You are not like any man I have ever seen before. I think you are a man that I would trust. You would never beat me. You would always be kind, and you would talk to me as men talk to men. That is something our men never do. At first, maybe, they are nice; but soon they only speak to give orders or to scold.

“Oh, some of them are not so bad as others,” she added. “I think that Gorph, my father, is the worst. He is very bad. He never says a pleasant word to any of us, and he is worse with me than with the others. He beats me and kicks me. I think that he hates me. But that is all right, because I hate him.

“There was one very nice man. I liked him, but he went away and never came back. He must be dead. He was a big man and a great warrior; but he was kind to women and children, and he laughed and was pleasant. The women would all have liked him for a mate, but he never would take a mate to live always in his cave. Thorek was different that way.”

“Thorek?” exclaimed von Horst. “He did not come back to Ja-ru?”

“You know him?” asked Lotai.

“We were prisoners of the Bastians, and we escaped together. We were friends. He should have been here before this. Since we parted I have traveled far and slept many times. Something must have happened to him.”

The girl sighed. “He was such a nice man; but then, what difference does it make? He was not for me. I will get a mate like Gorph and be kicked and beaten the rest of my life.”

“The women of Ja-ru have a hard time of it, I should say,” remarked von Horst.

“Not all of them. Only those like Mumal and myself. Some of them are big and strong and like to fight. If they are kicked, they kick back. These have a happy time. Mumal and I are different. She is not of Ja-ru. Gorph stole her from another tribe. I am like her, and Grum is like Gorph. We would run away and go back to my mother’s country; but it is very far, and the dangers are great. We would be killed long before we got to Sari.”

“Sari,” mused von Horst. “That is the country that Dangar came from. That is where I should like to go when I escape from here.”

“You will never escape,” said Lotai. “You will go into the little canyon, and you will never come out.”

“What is this little canyon I have heard so much about?” demanded the man.

“You will find out soon enough. Here come Mumal and Grum with the water. We must not talk together too much in front of Grum and Gorph. If they thought that I was friendly with a prisoner they would kick me and beat me all the more.”

The two women came into view up the ladder from below, each balancing a heavy gourd of water on her head. Mumal looked tired and dejected. Grum was hot and irritable, her evil face twisted in a black frown. She paused in the entrance to the cave.

“I am going to sleep,” she said. “See that you don’t make any noise;” then she entered the cave.

Mumal stooped and stroked Lotai’s hair as she passed. “I too am going to sleep, little one,” she said.

“I should like to sleep myself,” remarked Lotai after the others had entered the cave.

“Why don’t you?” asked von Horst.

“I have to watch you.”

“I’ll promise not to go away while you are guarding me,” he assured her. “Go in and sleep. I’d like to myself.”

She looked at him intently for a long time before she spoke. “I believe that you would not try to escape if you told me you would not,” she said, “but if Gorph found you out here while I was asleep in the cave it would be just as bad for me as though you had escaped. If you will go in though and not come out while I am sleeping it will be safe. We can go into a far corner of the cave and sleep, and then they won’t bother us.”

Von Horst was very tired, and he must have slept a long time. When he awoke, Lotai was not there. He found her with the others on the ledge before the cave. They were eating jerked venison, washing it down with great draughts of water. Gorph and Gram ate noisily, like beasts.

No one offered von Horst food. It lay in a little pile on a piece of skin in which it had been wrapped, filthy looking and malodorous; but it was food, and von Horst was famished. He walked over to it where it lay close to Gorph, and stooped to take some. As he did so Gorph struck his hand away.

“This fine food is not for slaves,” he growled. “Go to the back of the cave and get the scraps and the bones that are there.”

From the vile odor that he had noticed in the cave, von Horst could surmise the nature of the food that was intended for him, food that only actual starvation could drive him to eat. He knew that his future life with these people, however short or however long it might be, would depend largely upon the attitude that he took at this time. He reached again for the food; and again Gorph struck at his hand, but this time von Horst seized the fellow’s wrist, jerked him to his feet, and struck him a heavy blow on the jaw. Gorph dropped in his tracks. Von Horst gathered up a handful of the venison, picked up a gourd of water and crossed to the opposite side of the entrance where Mumal and Lotai sat wide eyed and trembling. There he sat down and commenced to eat.

Grum had not spoken, and now she sat with her eyes upon von Horst; but what was passing in the dark convolutions of that savage brain none might guess. Was she filled with rage that a stranger had struck down her father? Was she selfishly resentful that he had taken food? Or was she secretly admiring his courage, strength, and skill?

Presently consciousness returned to Gorph. He opened his eyes and raised himself on one elbow. He looked puzzled and was evidently trying to gather the threads of what had transpired. He stared at von Horst and the venison he was eating. Presently be rubbed his jaw, feeling of it gingerly as though to discover if it were broken; then he fell to eating. During all that had transpired no one had spoken; but von Horst was satisfied—he knew that he would not again be denied food and needed no verbal assurance of the fact.

The endless Pellucidarian day dragged on. Von Horst ate and slept. Gorph hunted, sometimes returning with the carcass of a kill or cuts from those he had hunted with companions, sometimes empty handed. Von Horst saw parties of mammoth-men come and go on their huge mounts. He talked with Lotai and with Mumal. Occasionally Grum joined in the conversations, but more often she sat in silence staring at von Horst.

The man wondered what his fate was to be and when he would know. The timelessness of Pellucidar offered no standard for the measurement of duration. It was this fact, he judged, that made the Pellucidarians seem so often to be dilatory. “Immediately” here might encompass the passage of an hour or a day of the outer crust’s solar time or, conceivably, a much longer period. Perhaps Mamth thought that he was handling the fate of the two prisoners with dispatch, but to von Horst it seemed an eternity. He had never seen Frug since they had been separated at the foot of the cliff, and if he never saw him again it would be far too soon.

On one occasion von Horst was sitting on the ledge before the entrance to the cave thinking of La-ja, as he often did, and wondering if she still lived. He was alone, for Gorph was hunting, Mumal and Lotai had gone up the canyon for a potato-like tuber; and Grum was asleep in the cave. He was enjoying the solitude, free from the scolding and cruelty of the family when either Grum or Gorph were present. He was day-dreaming, recalling pleasant memories, conjuring the faces and figures of friends of by-gone days—friends that he would never see again; but the thought did not make him particularly sad. It was good to recall the happier events of the past. His reveries were interrupted by the shuffling of sandaled feet within the cave. Grum was awake. Presently she came out on the ledge. She stood looking at him intently for a moment.

“You would make me a good mate,” she said. “I want you.”

Von Horst laughed. ‘’What makes you think I would make a good mate?” he asked.

“I saw the way you handled Gorph,” she replied. “I was told what you did to Trog. I want you for my mate.”

“But I am a stranger and a prisoner. I think I’ve heard one of you say that your women couldn’t mate with the men of other tribes.”

“I will see Mamth about that. Perhaps he would consent. You would make a good warrior for Mamth.”

Von Horst stretched comfortably and grinned. He felt quite safe. “Mamth would never give his consent,” he said.

“Then we will run away,” announced Grum. “I am tired of living here; I hate them all.”

“You’ve got it all figured out, haven’t you?”

“I have. It is all settled,” replied Grum.

“But suppose I don’t want you for a mate?” he inquired.

“It will be better than death,” she reminded him. “If you stay here you will go to your death in the little canyon.”

“We could not escape. If escape had been possible, I would have been gone long since. I have constantly watched for my chance.”

“We can escape,” said Grum. “I know a way that you do not know of.”

“How about Horg?” he asked. “I thought you wanted Horg.”

“I do, but I can’t get him.”

“If I helped you to get Horg, would you help me to escape?” he asked, as an idea suddenly developed in his mind.

“How could you get Horg for me?”

“I have an idea that I could. If we could go to Mamth together, and you asked him to let me be your mate, he would refuse; then I could explain the plan I have that would get Horg for you. I think he would like it.”

“Will you do it?” she demanded.

“Will you help me escape?”

“Yes,” she promised.

As they talked, von Horst saw a party of mammoth-men returning to the village on their huge mounts. They came with shouts and laughter, like conquering warriors; and there was one among them riding double behind another warrior, who was surrounded by a great crowd of jabbering, gesticulating natives as soon as he dismounted. The man from the outer crust watched them with but little interest and only casual curiosity. He could not know the cause of their exultation.

Shortly after the return of the warriors, von Horst noticed considerable activity in the grove at the foot of the cliff. Cooking fires were being built on the ground, which was unusual, as most of the cooking was done by individual families on the ledges before their caves.

“There is going to be a karoo,” said Grum. “We shall all go down and have much to eat and drink.”

“What is a karoo?” he asked. It was a word he had not heard before.

Grum explained that it was a feast and celebration in honor of some noteworthy event, in which all of the members of the tribe joined. She did not know the reason for this karoo, but judged that it was to celebrate something important that the returning party had accomplished.

“We can’t go down until Gorph returns or Mamth sends for us,” she said, “because my orders are to remain here and watch you; but when Gorph comes he will take you down, as otherwise one of us would have to remain here with you and miss the celebration. You are a nuisance. I wish you were dead.”

“Then you wouldn’t get Horg,” he reminded her.

“I won’t get him anyway. There is nothing that you can do to get him for me. I’ll have to take you instead, but you’re not the man that Horg is. Wait until you see him. Compared with you he is as the tandor is to the thag; and, besides, he has a mighty beard. His face is not as yours, smooth like a woman’s. Always you are scraping off your beard with the strange, shiny knife that you carry.”

Presently Lotai and Mumal returned to the cave, to be followed shortly by Gorph. The man carried the carcass of an antelope he had killed; the women, a supply of tubers; and after they had deposited these things in the cave Gorph ordered them all to descend to the ground. Here there was a considerable gathering, several hundred men, women, and children, comprising von Horst concluded, the entire membership of the tribe. There, was much talking and laughing—a holiday spirit seemed to possess the gathering, making a strange contrast to their usual demeanor. The strange warrior was still surrounded by such a large crowd that von Horst did not catch a glimpse of him at first. Little attention was paid to the prisoners as Frug squatted disconsolately with his back to the bole of a tree, while von Horst stood watching with interest the largest concourse of really primitive people that he had ever seen.

Presently Mamth discovered him. “Come here!” he shouted; then he turned to the warrior who seemed the center of attraction. “Here’s a prisoner such as no man ever saw before. Take a look at him. He has a face as smooth as a woman’s and yellow hair. He tossed Trog and Gorph around as though they were babies. Come here you!” he again commanded von Horst.

As the prisoner approached, the warrior pushed his way through the crowd to see him; and a moment later they stood face to face.

“Thorek!” exclaimed von Horst.

“Well! Well!” roared the mammoth-man. “It is Von or I’m a jalok. So this is the man who tossed Trog and Gorph around? I am not surprised. I can toss either of them, and he tossed me.”

“You know him?” demanded Mamth.

“Know him? We are friends. Together we escaped from Basti, taking the slaves with us.”

“Friends!” exclaimed Mamth. “He is a stranger. Mammoth-men do not make friends of strangers.”

“I did, and he made a good friend,” retorted Thorek. “Because of that he should have the friendship of all mammoth-men. He is a great warrior, and should be allowed to live with us and take a mate from among our women; or he should be permitted to go his way unmolested.”

The heavy visage of Mamth was furrowed by a black scowl. “No!” he shouted. “He is a stranger and an enemy, and he dies as should all the enemies of the mammoth-men. Mamth has been saving him for the little canyon. When Mamth is ready, he goes there. Mamth has spoken.”

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