Back to the Stone Age

Chapter XVIII


Edgar Rice Burroughs

THAT HE was free seemed almost incredible to von Horst. A veritable miracle, the reward for his humane treatment of his giant savior, had wrought his salvation in an extremity from which only a miracle might have saved him. But what of the future? He had a mount, but what could he do about it? Where was it taking him? Could he control it? Could he even escape it? And if he did, where was he to go? He knew now that there was practically no hope that he might ever find Sari. Even though he might retrace his steps to The Forest of Death, through which he must pass to pick up Dangar’s trail, he knew that it would be suicidal to enter that grim and forbidding wood.

He would have liked to make his way to Lo-har because that was La-ja’s country. From the point at which he had left The Forest of Death he knew the general direction of Lo-har, and so he decided that when he was again a free agent he would seek out the land of La-ja. There might always be at least the hope that she found her way there. That she could, though, through this fearsome land of grotesque and terrible dangers appeared such a remote possibility as to verge closely upon the impossible.

And how was he to reach it even though chance might put him on the right trail? He was unarmed except for the crude stone knife the mammoth-men had given him and the now useless belt of cartridges which he had clung to for some reason almost as inexplicable as the fact that his captors had not taken it from him.

It is true that the time he had spent in Pellucidar and his increased knowledge of her ways had given him greater confidence in his ability to take care of himself, but it had also impressed upon him a healthy respect for the dangers that he knew must confront him. So much for the future. How about the present?

Old White had reduced his speed and was ambling down the main canyon away from the village of the mammoth-men and the little canyon. No sign of pursuit had developed, and von Horst thought it probable that the tribesmen had been so occupied with the saber-toothed tiger rampant among them that they had failed to notice the sudden departure of Old White and himself.

Presently the mammoth came out of the foot-hills and set its course down toward the river upon the banks of which von Horst had come upon it and where he had later been captured by the mammoth-men. The gentle slope of the plain ahead was dotted with feeding animals, sight of which raised the question in von Horst’s mind as to how he was to procure food with only a stone knife as a weapon. He was also concerned with the destination of Old White. Were the animal to leave him in the open plain he might never pass through these great herds to the trees by the river, and he must reach the sanctuary of trees if he were to have even a chance for survival. There he could find partial concealment and the materials for the bow and arrows and the spear he must have to wage the eternal battle for life which constitutes the whole existence of man in that savage world.

But now Old White was veering off to the left on a course parallel to the river. Von Horst did not want to go in that direction, for the country lay open and only sparsely treed as far as the eye could reach. Trees, plenty of them, trees beside water he must reach.

He had witnessed the unsuccessful attempt to tame Old White. He had seen him obey the signals of his rider before he killed him, and he wondered if the great beast remembered what he had learned; or, remembering, if he would obey. Perhaps an attempt to guide him would recall to the mammoth the indignities that had been heaped upon him by his captors and the manner in which he had rid himself of his last rider.

Von Horst hesitated a moment; then he shrugged and kicked Old White with his left foot. Nothing happened. He kicked again several times. Now the beast changed its direction toward the right and von Horst kept on kicking until it was headed straight for the river. Thereafter he kept the beast on this course by the signals he had learned from the mammoth-men—that they had both learned thus.

When the river was reached von Horst struck Old White a sharp blow on top of the head, and the beast stopped; then the man slipped to the ground. He wondered what the animal would do now, but it did nothing—only stood placidly waving its trunk to and fro. Von Horst stepped in front of its shoulder and stroked its trunk. “Good boy,” he said in quiet tones, as a man speaks to his horse. Old White wound his trunk about the man gently; then he released him, and von Horst walked away toward the trees and the river. He lay down on his belly and drank, and the mammoth came and drank beside him.

Von Horst could not know how long he remained there among the trees beside the river. He caught fish and gathered nuts and fruit and ate and slept several times; and he fashioned a bow and arrows and a good, stout spear. He made his spear with a thought to tarags. It was longer than the spears he had had before, but not too long; and it was heavy. The wood of which it was made was long-grained and pliant. It would not break easily.

While he was there he saw Old White often. The great beast fed in a great patch of bamboo that grew beside the river only a short distance from the tree in which von Horst had constructed a rude shelter. Often, when not feeding, it came and stood beneath the tree that housed the man. Upon such occasions von Horst made it a point always to handle the beast and talk to it, for it offered him the only companionship that he had. After awhile he came to look forward to Old White’s return, and worry a little if he seemed gone over-long. It was a strange friendship, this between a man and a mammoth; and in it von Horst thought he recognized a parallel to the accidents that had resulted eons before in the beginning of the domestication of animals upon the outer crust.

His weapons completed, von Horst determined to set off upon his search for Lo-har. He did not expect ever to find the country, but he had to have an objective. It was just as likely that he would stumble upon Sari as that he should find Lo-har, but he could not simply remain where he was waiting for death by accident or old age. Furthermore, a sense of humor as well as curiosity impelled him to wish to see the fabulous Gaz.

Old White was standing under a nearby tree, out of the heat of the noon-day sun, swaying gently to and fro; and von Horst walked over to give him a final good-by caress, for he had grown to be genuinely fond of his gigantic friend and companion.

“I’m going to miss you, old boy,” he said. “You and I’ve been places and done things. Good luck to you!” and he gave the rough trunk a final slap as he turned and walked away into the unknown upon his hopeless quest.

As his eyes scanned the broad, horizonless vista that melted into a soft vignette at the uttermost range of human eye-sight it was difficult to reconcile the complete primitiveness of this untouched world with his knowledge that a bare five-hundred miles beneath his feet might be a city teeming with the traffic and the concerns of countless humans like himself who went their various ways and lived their lives confronted by no greater menace than a reckless driver or a banana peel thrown carelessly upon the pavement.

It amused him to speculate upon what his friends might say could they see him now, the trim, sophisticated Lieutenant Frederich Wilhelm Eric von Mendeldorf und von Horst naked but for a loin-cloth, a man of the Pleistocene if ever there was one. And then his thoughts turned back to Pellucidar and La-ja. He wondered why she disliked him so, and he winced at the insistent realization this reverie conjured. He had sought to deny it and beat it down below the threshold of his consciousness, but it persisted with the insistent determination of a stricken conscience. He loved her; he loved this little barbarian who was as unconscious of the existence of an alphabet as of finger-bowls.

He plodded on sunk deep in reverie, which is no way to plod Pellucidar where one must be either very quick or very dead. He did not hear the thing that walked behind him, for it walked on padded feet—he was thinking of La-ja of Lo-har. Then, suddenly, he was startled into consciousness of his surroundings and the need for constant vigilance; but too late. Something seized him around the waist and swept him off his feet. As he was lifted high in air he squirmed and looked down into the rough and hairy face of Old White; then he was lowered gently to the broad neck. He almost laughed aloud in his relief. Instantly he felt new hope for the future—that will companionship do, even the companionship of a dumb beast.

“You old son-of-a-gun!” he exclaimed. “You nearly scared the breech-cloth off me, but I am glad to see you! Guess you get lonesome, too, eh? Neither of us seems to have many friends. Well, we’ll stick together as long as you’ll stick.”

Through dangers that must otherwise have seemed fatal Old White bore the man-thing for whom he had conceived this strange attachment. Even the mighty tarag slunk aside out of the path of the mammoth; no bull of the great herds through which they passed charged. Once a thipdar circled about them, the great Pteranodon of the Lias which could carry off a full grown bull Bos. Beneath the shadow of its twenty foot wing spread they moved, the mammoth unconcerned, the man apprehensive; but it did not dive to the attack.

They stopped at intervals to feed and water and to sleep; but as time meant nothing in this timeless world, von Horst made no effort to compute it. He only knew that they must be a long way from Ja-ru. Often he walked to rest his muscles, and Old White plodded so close to him that his hairy trunk usually touched the naked body of the man.

To occupy his mind, von Horst had taught the beast several things—to raise him to its head upon command and to lower him to the ground, to kneel and to lie down, to walk or trot or charge at the proper signal, to lift and carry objects, to place his head against a tree and push it down, or to encircle one with its trunk and uproot it.

Old White seemed to enjoy learning and to be proud of his accomplishments. That he was highly intelligent, von Horst had long realized; and there was one characteristic of the mighty beast that proved it to the man beyond doubt. That was Old White’s sense of humor. It was so well developed that there could be no mistaking it, and there were occasions when von Horst could have sworn that the mammoth grinned in appreciation of his own jokes, one of which was to seize the man by an ankle from behind and swing him into the air; but he never dropped him nor ever hurt him, always lowering him to the ground gently. Again, if he thought von Horst had slept too long, he would place a foot upon his body and pretend to trample him, holding him down; or he would fill his trunk with water and shower him. The man never knew what to expect nor when to expect it, but he soon learned that Old White would never harm him.

Von Horst had no idea how far they had traveled; but he knew it must have been a considerable distance, yet they had passed no village nor seen a human being. He marveled at the vast expanse of uninhabited country given over entirely to wild animals. Thus had been the outer crust at one time. Yet, as he thought of conditions there now, it seemed incredible.

Whether he was nearer to Lo-har than before he could not guess. Often the excursion seemed hair-brained and hopeless. But what else was there for him to do? He might as well keep moving whether in the right direction or the wrong. Had he had a human companion—had La-ja been with him—he might have been reconciled to settle permanently in one of the many beautiful valleys he had crossed; but to live always alone in one place was unthinkable. And so he pushed on, exploring a new world that no one might ever know about but himself.

Each new rise of ground that he approached aroused his enthusiasm for the unknown. What lay beyond the summit?

What new scenes would be revealed? Thus once, as Old White moved ponderously up a slight acclivity, the mans mind conjectured what might lie beyond the summit they were approaching, his anticipation of new scenes and his enthusiasm seemingly undiminished; then he heard a deep bellow, followed by others. Mingled with them seemed to be the voices of men.

To von Horst men meant enemies, so definitely had he habituated himself to the reactions of the stone age; but he determined to have a look at these people. Perhaps they were Lo-harians. Perhaps he had reached Lo-har! The sounds suggested men driving a herd of cattle in which were many bulls, for the deep tones of the bellows gave color to his belief that there were mostly bulls beyond the ridge.

Slipping from Old White’s back, von Hoist ordered the great beast to remain where it was; then he crept stealthily forward, hoping to reach the summit of the ridge unobserved. In this he was successful, and a moment later he was looking down upon a scene that might well have made him question the credibility of his eyesight.

He lay upon the edge of a low cliff, and below him were four creatures such as might have materialized only from a bad dream. They had the bodies of men—squat, stocky men. Their faces, their shoulders, and their breasts were covered with long, brown hair. From opposite sides of their foreheads protruded short, heavy horns much like the horns of a bison; and they had tails with a bushy tuft of hair at the end. From their throats issued the bull-like bellows he had heard, as well as the speech of men.

They carried no weapons; and it was evident that they were being held at bay by some creature or creatures that were hidden from the sight of von Horst by the overhanging of the cliff upon which he lay, for every time they started to approach closer to the cliff fragments of stone would fly out and drive them back. This always set them to bellowing angrily; and sometimes one or another of them would stamp the ground or paw up the dust with a foot, for all the world like a mad bull; so that von Horst thought of them then and always as the bison-men.

From the fact that missiles were being hurled at these creatures by their prey, von Horst assumed that the latter might be human beings; though, of course, in Pellucidar they might be any strange variety of man or beast. That they were bison-men, he doubted; as he noticed that none of the four threw rocks in return, as he was reasonably certain they would have done had they been sufficiently intelligent.

Occasionally he caught a word or two as the four spoke to one another, and he discovered that they spoke the common language of the human beings of Pellucidar. Presently one of them raised his voice and shouted to whatever it was they had brought to bay at the foot of the cliff.

“Stop throwing rocks, gilak,” he said. “It will only go worse with you when we get you, and we shall get you—be sure of that. You have neither food nor water; so you must come out or starve.”

“What do you want of us?” demanded a voice from the bottom of the cliff.

“We want the woman,” replied the bison-man who had previously spoken.

“You don’t want me?” demanded the voice.

“Only to kill you; but if you give us the woman, we will spare you.”

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” “We do not lie,” replied the bison-man. “Bring her here and we will let you go.” “I bring her,” announced the voice from below.

“The son of a pig!” ejaculated von Horst beneath his breath.

A moment later he saw a man emerge from below the overhang of the cliff, dragging a woman by the hair. Instantly he was upon his feet, charged with horror and with rage; for at the first glance he had recognized them—Skruf and La-ja.

A sheer drop of thirty or forty feet to the ground below left him temporarily helpless, and for a moment he could only stand and look down upon the tragedy; then he fitted an arrow to his bow, but Skruf was partially shielded by the body of the girl. Von Horst could not shoot without endangering her.

“La-ja!” he cried. The girl tried to turn her head back in the direction of his voice. Skruf and the bison-men looked up at the figure standing upon the top of the cliff.

“One side, La-ja!” he called. “Go to one side!” Instantly she swung to the right, turning Skruf sideways so that he was fully exposed to the archer whose bow was already drawn. The bow-string twanged. Skruf screamed and went down clutching at the feathered shaft sunk deep in his body, and as he fell he released his hold upon La-ja’s hair.

“Run!” commanded von Horst. “Run parallel to the cliff and I will follow until I find a way down.”

Already, recovered from their first surprise, the bison-men were running toward the girl; but she had a little start, and with luck she might outdistance them. Their heavy, squat figures did not seem designed for speed.

Von Horst turned and called to Old White to follow; then he ran along the cliff-top a little behind La-ja. Almost at once he realized that the appearance of the bison-men belied their agility—they were overhauling the girl. Again he fitted an arrow to his bow. Just for an instant he paused—long enough to take aim at the leading bison-man and release the shaft; then he sprang forward, but he had lost ground that he could not regain. However, he had temporarily widened the gap between La-ja and her pursuers; for the leading bison-man lay groveling on the ground, an arrow through his back.

The others were closing up, and again von Horst was forced to stop and shoot. As before, the girl’s closest pursuer pitched to the ground. The fellow rolled over and over, but when he stopped he lay very still. Now there were only two, but again von Horst had lost distance. He tried to gain on them but he could not. At last he halted and sent two more arrows after the remaining bison-men. The nearer fell, but he missed the other. Twice after that he loosed his shafts; but the last one fell short, and he knew that the man was out of range—out of range and rapidly gaining on his quarry. Just ahead of the fleeing girl loomed a forest of giant trees. If she could reach these she might elude her pursuer, and she was fleet of foot.

In silence the three raced on, von Horst on the cliff-top barely maintaining his ground; then the girl disappeared among the boles of the great trees; and a moment later the bison-man followed her. Von Horst was frantic. The interminable cliff offered no avenue of descent. There was nothing to do but continue on until he found such a place, but in the meantime what would become of La-ja?

To have found her so unexpectedly, to have been so close to her, and then to have lost her left him heart-sick and hopeless. Still, he knew now that she lived; and that was something. And now, close behind him, he heard the familiar trumpeting of Old White; and a moment later a hairy trunk encircled him and swung him to the now familiar seat in the hollow back of the massive skull.

Just beyond the edge of the forest they came upon a rift in the escarpment; and here the mammoth, finding precarious foot-hold, picked his way carefully down. Von Horst turned him back to the point at which La-ja had disappeared; but here he was forced to dismount, as the trees grew too closely to permit the great beast to enter the forest, and he could neither uproot nor push over the giant boles.

As von Horst left Old White to enter the forest he had a premonition that this was the last time that he would ever see his faithful friend and ally; and it was with a heavy heart that he passed into the grim, forbidding wood.

Only for an instant was his mind occupied with thoughts of Old White, for at a distance he heard a faint scream; and then a voice called his name twice—“Von! Von!”—the voice of the woman he loved.

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