Back to the Stone Age

Chapter XV

The Bridegroom

Edgar Rice Burroughs

THE SENTENCE of death had been pronounced; but von Horst was not shocked, because he was not surprised. He had known all along that death in some form would end his captivity if he did not escape. When it would come, in this timeless world, could not be even a matter of conjecture. Thorek was angry; but he could do nothing to save his friend, because Mamth was chief and his word law. He sulked and grumbled beneath his breath, but when the feast started he fell to with the rest and soon apparently forgot his grievance in enjoyment of food and drink. Von Horst and Frug were permitted to join in the celebration; and after a taste of the brew that was being served, von Horst concluded that it would not require much of it to cause a man to forget more than a grievance. It was fermented by the women—a mixture of wild maize, several herbs, and honey—and while far from unpalatable it had the kick of an army mule. One taste sufficed for von Horst. Both men and women partook of it freely with varying results. Some became more loquacious and hilarious, others morose and quarrelsome; so that there was usually a fight progressing in some part of the grove. There were some who did not drink at all, and von Horst noticed that Lotai and Mumal were among these. Grum, on the contrary, was evidently a two-fisted drinker; and while she carried. it well, it accentuated her distinctive characteristics, so that she became more bellicose, domineering, and assertive.

Von Horst watched her not without some amusement, as she approached an enormous man and threw her arms about his neck, revealing a characteristic that it had taken several potent droughts to coax to the surface. Grum evidencing affection bordered upon the ludicrous. Evidently the large man felt the same way about it, for he roughly disengaged her arms from about his neck and gave her a violent push that sent her sprawling on the ground. She was up in an instant, a veritable fury, her face distorted with rage. Von Horst thought that she was going to attack the ungallant one, but instead she barged down on Mamth.

“I want a mate,” she screamed. “I want Horg.” Mamth turned toward the big man. “What does Horg say?” he demanded.

So that was Horg. Von Horst appraised the fellow and was glad that he had not elected to fight him for the sake of the delectable Grum. The man was a giant. He must have weighed close to three hundred pounds, and he bulged with muscles.

Horg guffawed loudly. “Take that she-tarag as a mate!” he bellowed. “I’d as soon take a Mahar.”

“You heard him,” said Mamth. “Go back to the karoo and leave the man alone. He is not for you.”

“He is for me,” screamed Grum. “I have a warrior who will fight Horg for me.”

Every eye sought Gorph, and a great laugh followed. “Come on, Gorph,” a warrior shouted; “show us how you will best Horg, but don’t kill him.”

Horg laughed uproariously. “Come on, Gorph,” he cried. “If you beat me I’ll take Grum off your hands, and I don’t blame you for wanting to be rid of her.”

“She’s drunk too much tumal,” growled Gorph. “I never promised to fight Horg for her. Horg is my friend; I do not wish to harm him.”

This elicited another roar of laughter, and Horg thought that it was so funny that he rolled on the ground bellowing his amusement. Grum said nothing. She just watched Horg and Gorph in silence for a moment; then she turned to Mamth.

“I didn’t say that Gorph was going to fight Horg for me. Gorph is a coward. He would fight nothing if he could get out of it. I have a man who will fight Horg—and do it now.”

“Who is he?” demanded Mamth.

Von Horst experienced a distinct sinking feeling around the pit of his stomach. He knew what was coming. Grum pointed a stubby, grimy finger at him. “There he is,” she cried in a loud voice.

“He’s not a mammoth-man,” objected Mamth. “How can he fight for you?”

“Because no one else will,” admitted Grum.

Mamth shook his head, but he did not have time to voice a definite refusal before Horg spoke up.

“Let him fight me,” he said. “This is a karoo, and we should have some amusement.”

“You will promise not to kill him?” demanded Mamth. “I am saving him for the little canyon.”

“I will not kill him,” promised Horg.

Von Horst approached the two. “And when I have beaten you,” he demanded, “you will make Grum your mate?”

“That is the way of the mammoth-men,” said Mamth. “He will have to take her, but you will not beat him.”

“Beat me!” bellowed Horg. “Let me get hold of him.”

“How do we fight?” asked von Horst. “Are there any rules?”

“You fight as the beasts fight,” explained Mamth. “You may use no weapon, no stone nor stick. You fight until one of you is unable to fight longer or gives up.”

“I am ready,” said von Horst.

“Are you ready, Horg?” demanded Mamth.

Horg laughed nonchalantly and contemptuously. “I am ready,” he said.

“Then fight!” commanded Mamth.

The spectators formed a circle about the combatants as the two approached one another. Horg was in fine spirits. The tumal he had drunk accounted partially for that, and certainty of an easy victory took care of the rest. He cracked jokes with his friends at the expense of both von Horst and Grum. They were rather broad jokes and not at all of the parlor variety, but every one enjoyed them immensely—that is, everyone but Grum. She was furious.

“Wait until I get you,” she screamed. “You’ll wish you’d never been born.”

Von Horst grinned as he featured the life that was in store for Horg should the mammoth-man lose. Death would be sweeter.

Suddenly Horg made a rush at von Horst, the brawny arms, the ham-like hands endeavoring to close upon him; but yon Horst stooped and dodged beneath them; then he wheeled and struck Horg on the jaw—a blow that staggered him. Before the mammoth-man could recover, he was struck again; and again his head rocked. Now he was furious. He cracked no more jokes. He bellowed like an angry elephant and charged again. Again von Horst dodged him, and the great hulk went lumbering on a dozen paces before it could stop.

When Horg turned he saw von Horst charging him. This was what he wished. Now he could get hold of the fellow, and once he got hold of him he could crush him, break his bones if he wished unless he gave up.

He stood waiting, his feet spread far apart, his arms open. Von Horst ran swiftly straight toward Horg. Just before he reached him he leaped into the air; flexed his knees, drawing his feet close to his body, and then with all his strength backed by the momentum of his charge he kicked Horg with both feet full in the face. The result was astonishing—especially to Horg. He turned a complete back somersault, landed on his head, and dropped face down in the dirt.

Groggy and only half conscious, he staggered slowly to his feet. Von Horst was waiting for him. “Have you had enough?” he asked. He did not wish to punish the man further in the condition he was in. The crowd was yelling encouragement to him; and with the fickleness and cruelty of crowds was jeering at its fallen champion. Grum, seeing her hopes about to be realized, screamed at the top of her voice as she urged von Horst to finish the almost helpless man; but Horg would not give in.

Perhaps he heard Grum and preferred death. He lunged for his lighter antagonist, growling beast-like.

“I kill!” he screamed.

Thus was von Horst compelled to continue, for he knew that Horg had uttered no idle threat. If the fellow could get those great paws on him, get one good hold, he would kill him. In both his hands he seized one of the outstretched wrists, swung quickly around, bent suddenly forward, and hurled the mighty man over his head—a trick of jujitsu far simpler than it appeared to the amazed onlookers. Horg fell heavily and lay still. Von Horst approached and stood over him. There were cries of “Kill him! Kill him!” for the blood-lust of these primitive savages was aroused, stimulated perhaps by the tumal they had drunk.

Von Horst turned to Mamth. “Have I won?” he asked.

The chief nodded. “You have won,” he said.

The victor looked at Grum. “Here is your mate,” he said. “Come and take him.”

The woman ran forward and fell upon the prostrate Horg, beating and kicking him. Von Horst turned away in disgust. The others, laughing, returned to the food and the tumal.

Thorek came and slapped von Horst on the back. “I told them you were a great warrior,” he exulted.

“You should know,” said von Horst with a grin.

“Come and join the karoo,” said Thorek. “You have had nothing to eat or drink. That is not the way to make karoo.”

“Why should I make karoo?” demanded von Horst. “I do not even know what is being celebrated.”

“They have captured Old White, The Killer. That is something to celebrate. There never was such a wise old mammoth, nor one as large. After the next sleep we shall start training him, and when he is trained Mamth will ride him. He is a fit mammoth for a chief.”

“I should like to see him trained,” remarked von Horst; for he thought it might be an interesting occasion if Old White objected, which he was sure that he would.

“I’ll ask Mamth if you can come,” said Thorek. “It will probably be after the next sleep. Every one will wish to sleep after the karoo.”

The two men talked for awhile, exchanging experiences that had befallen them since they had separated; then Thorek wandered away to drink with his fellows, and von Horst sought out Lotai. Together they watched the celebration, which was by this time loud and boisterous. Fights were more numerous, the laughter deafening. Usually dignified old warriors were performing foolish antics and laughing uproariously at themselves. Many of the women were thick tongued and bleary eyed. As von Horst watched them he was struck by the very obvious fact that human nature had undergone little or no change from the stone age to the present time. Except for the difference in language and apparel these might be people from any present-day country of the outer crust. Presently he saw Grum approaching unsteadily. For the moment she had relaxed surveillance over her new mate. Von Horst attracted her attention and beckoned to her.

“What do you want?” she demanded.

“You have not forgotten our bargain?” inquired the man.

“What bargain?” she asked.

“If I got Horg for you, you were to help me escape.”

“When they are asleep after the karoo I will show you the way, but you cannot go now. The tarags would get you. After the prisoners are taken to the little canyon, the tarags will be gone; then you could go.”

“It will be too late then,” he said, “for I am to go to the little canyon; and if I have surmised correctly from what I have heard, I shall not return.”

“No,” she admitted with a shrug, “you will not. But I promised to show you how you might escape. It is the only way I know; if you can’t use it, that is not my fault.” Then she staggered away in search of Horg, and von Horst returned to Lotai.

The celebration dragged on—interminably, it seemed to von Horst; but at last those who could still walk reeled to their caves to sleep.

Horg had drunk himself into a stupor, and Grum was beating him over the head with a stick in an effort either to punish or arouse him—perhaps to kill him. Von Horst could not guess which.

Lotai, Mumal, and Gorph were climbing to their caves—the last so befuddled that climbing the ladder toward his ledge seemed to von Horst almost to verge upon suicide.

The European passed close to Grum. “They are all going to their caves to sleep,” he whispered. “Now is your chance to tell me.”

“Go to the ledge before Gorph’s cave, and wait there for me.”

As he climbed the ladders toward the ledge he could hear Grum berating Horg as she beat him, and he smiled as he speculated on the similarity between the people of the old stone age and those of modern-day civilization. The principal difference seemed to lie in the matter of inhibitions. He had known women of the outer crust who were like Grum—their thoughts were taloned.

He sat down upon the ledge to wait. He was quite alone. The others had gone into the cave to sleep. He though of Lotai and the sad lives that she and Mumal led. He thought too of La-ja, and these thoughts were sad thoughts. It seemed strange that this little savage should have won to such a place in his life that a future without her loomed dull and grey. Could it be that he loved her? He sought to analyze his feelings that he might refute such a theory, but he only arrived at another sigh with the realization that no matter what logic he brought to bear the fact remained that her passing from his life had left an emptiness that hurt.

Presently Grum came. Her little eyes were blood-shot, her frowzy hair at its frowziest. She was the personification of a stench, both morally and physically.

“Well,” she said, “I guess Horg knows that he has a mate.”

“Why did you beat him?” asked von Horst.

“You’ve got to start right with them,” she explained. “If you give them the least little toe-hold you’re lost, just as Mumal is.”

He nodded in understanding of her philosophy; for, again, he had known women of the outer crust who were like her. Perhaps their technique was more refined, but their aim was identical. Marriage to them, meant a struggle for supremacy. It was a 50-50 proposition of their own devising—they took fifty and demanded the other fifty.

“Now,” he said, “tell me how I may escape.”

“There is a hole in the rear of Gorph’s cave,” explained Grum. “It drops down a few feet into a tunnel. When I was a little girl Gorph was beating me. I broke away and hid in this hole. I knew he would not dare to follow me, because he had always told us that this tunneled to the Molop Az. Gorph chased me and tried to get hold of me, reaching into the hole to seize me; so I had to move back into the tunnel to escape him. He threatened to kill me when I came out—if I didn’t fall into the Molop Az and get burned up.

“I was very much afraid of Gorph then when I was a little girl. When this happened he had been drinking too much tumal, and I knew that if I came out he really would kill me; so I determined to stay where I was until I thought he was asleep.

“Then I got to thinking about Molop Az. Perhaps I could go far enough in the tunnel to see it and return safely. After all it didn’t make much difference to me if I did fall into it. Gorph was very cruel, and sooner or later he was sure to kill me. Of that I was convinced; so I thought I might as well take a chance with the Molop Az. Being young, I was very curious. The more I thought about it the more I wished to investigate it. I decided to follow the tunnel and see the Molop Az.”

“What is the Molop Az?” asked von Horst.

“It is a sea of fire, Pellucidar floats upon it. We know that, because there are places in Pellucidar where the smoke and fire come up through the ground from the Molop Az. There are holes in mountains where melted rock flows up.

“The dead that are buried in the ground are taken down bit by bit by little demons and burned up in Molop Az. There is no doubt about that because when we dig up a body that has been buried we find that some of it has been carried away—perhaps all of it.”

“And did you find the Molop Az?” She shook her head “No. The tunnel does not lead to Molop Az; it leads to the little canyon. From there, except at certain times, you could easily make your escape from Ja-ru; just go up the canyon and climb the cliff at the upper end. Beyond, you can drop down into another canyon that leads out of our country into a country where mammoth-men seldom if ever go.” “Thanks,” said von Horst.

“But you can’t go now. The tarags would get you. They are in the far end of the tunnel. They will be there until the prisoners are taken to the little canyon.”

“What is the little canyon?” he asked.

She looked at him in surprise. “What would a little canyon be but a little canyon?” she demanded.

“What happens there?”

“You will find out soon enough. Now I am going back to Horg. You got him for me, and I have kept my promise. I don’t know whether he was worth the trouble, but at least I shall have a cave of my own.” She turned then and left him.

“At least I shall have a cave of my own!” von Horst grinned. Evidently it was an immemorial custom that girls should wed to escape their families.

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