Back to the Stone Age

Chapter XX

The Bellowing Herd

Edgar Rice Burroughs

THE TWO GANAKS motioned La-ja to accompany them. “Kru has sent for you, too,” they said; “but he is not going to kill you,” they added, grinning.

As they passed through the village toward the hut of the chief, many of the Ganaks were lying in the shade of the numerous trees that grew within the compound. Some were eating the grass that had been cut by the slaves; others were placidly chewing their cuds, drowsing with half-closed eyes. Some of the children played. Sporadically and briefly, but the adults neither played nor laughed nor conversed. They were typical ruminants, seemingly as stupid. They wore neither ornaments nor clothing, nor had they any weapons.

To their lack of weapons, coupled with their stupidity, von Horst attributed the fact that they had not relieved him of his. He still had his bow and arrows and a knife, though he had not recovered his spear which he had dropped during the fight following his slaying of Drovan.

The prisoners were led before Kru who lay in the shade of the great tree that overspread his hut, the hut that had been Drovan’s so recently. He looked at them through his red-rimmed eyes, but mostly he looked at La-ja. “You belong to me,” he said to her; “you belong to the chief. Pretty soon you go in hut; now you stay outside, watch gilak man die. You will see how you die if you make Kru mad.” Then he turned to a bull lying beside him. “Splay, go tell the slaves to bring the dancing water and the death-tree.”

“What’s the idea?” demanded von Horst. “Why should you kill me? If it hadn’t been for me you wouldn’t be chief.”

“Too many men slaves,” grunted Kru. “They eat too much. Dancing water good; death-tree fun.”

“Fun for whom—me?”

“No, fun for Ganaks; no fun for gilak.” Presently Splay returned with a number of slaves. Several of the men carried a small tree that had been stripped of its branches; other men and the women bore quantities of small sticks and rude jars and gourds filled with a liquid.

At sight of them the bison-men commenced to gather from all parts of the village; their women came too, but the young were chased away. They sat down forming a great circle about the tree before the chiefs hut. A slave passed a jar to one in the circle. He took a long draught. and passed it to the next in line. Thus it started around the circle. The slaves bearing the other gourds and jars followed it around just outside the circle. When it had been emptied another was started at that point.

The men slaves who bore the small tree trunk dug a hole in the ground in an open space between the chiefs hut and the village gate. When the hole was sufficiently deep they set the tree upright in it and stamped dirt around it. It protruded about six feet above the surface of the ground. And while this was going on many gourds and jars had been passed around the circle. Now men and women were bellowing, and presently a woman arose and began to leap and skip in clumsy, awkward simulation of a dance. Soon others joined her, both men and women, until all the adults of the village were leaping and staggering and lurching about the compound.

“Dancing-water,” said von Horst to La-ja, with a grin.

“Yes, it is the water that takes men’s brains away. Sometimes it makes brave men of cowards and beasts of brave men and always fools of all men. Gaz drinks much of it before he kills.”

“That must be the tree of death over there.” Von Horst nodded in the direction of the sapling the slaves had finished setting up. Now they were piling dry grass and leaves and sticks all around it.

“The death tree!” whispered La-ja. “What is it for?”

“For me,” said the man.

“But how? I do not understand. It can’t be that they are going to— Oh, no; they can’t be.”

“But they are, La-ja. Odd, isn’t it?”

“What is odd?”

“That these creatures that are so near the beasts couldn’t think of such a thing by themselves nor accomplish it. That only man of all the animals has the faculty of devising torture for amusement.”

“I had never thought of that,” she said; “but it is true, and it is also true that only man makes the drink that steals away his brains and makes him like the beasts.”

“Not like the beasts, La-ja-only more human; for it removes his inhibitions and permits him to be himself.”

She did not reply, but stood staring at the stake in the center of the compound, fascinated. Von Horst watched her lovely profile, wondering what was passing in that half savage little brain. He knew that the end must be nearing rapidly, but he had made no move to escape the horrible death the slaves were preparing for him. If there had been only himself to consider, he could have made a break for liberty and died fighting; but there was the girl. He wanted to save her far more than he wanted to save himself.

All about them the bison-men were dancing and bellowing. He heard Kru shout, “Fire! Fire! Give us a fire to dance around. More dance-water! Bring more dancewater, slaves!”

As the slaves refilled the jars and gourds, others built a large fire near the stake; and the bellowing herd immediately commenced to circle it. With the lighting of the fire the demeanor of the bison-men became more uncontrolled, more boisterous, and more bestial; and with the added stimulus of the new supply of drink they threw aside all discretion.

To right and left they were falling to the ground—those remaining on their feet so drunk that they could scarcely stagger. Then some one raised the cry, “The gilak! To the death-tree with him!”

It was taken up on all sides by those who could still speak, and then Kru came staggering toward von Horst.

“To the death tree with him!” he bellowed. “The girl!” he exclaimed. It was as though he had forgotten her until his eyes fell on her on that minute. “Come with me! You are Kru’s.” He reached out a dirty paw to seize her.

“Not so fast!” said von Horst, stepping between them; then he struck Kru in the face, knocking him down, seized La-ja by the hand and started to run for the village gate, which the slaves had left open when they brought in the tree and the fire-wood. Behind them was the whole herd of bison-men, bellowing with rage as they commenced to get it through their befuddled minds that the prisoners were making a break for escape. In front of them were the slaves. Would they try to stop them? Von Horst dropped La-ja’s hand and removed his now useless cartridge belt. Useless? Not quite. A slave tried to stop him, and he swung the loaded belt to the side of his head, knocking him down.

That and one look at von Horst’s face sent the other slaves scurrying out of his way, but now some of the bison-men were taking up the pursuit. However, a single backward glance assured von Horst that either he or La-ja could out-distance them at the moment; as they had difficulty in remaining on their feet at all, while those that did moved about so erratically as to make the idea of pursuit by them appear ridiculous. Nevertheless, they were coming, and the gate was a long way off. To von Horst’s disgust, he saw that a few of the bison-men were steadying. But their vile drink held most of them in a state of helplessness. A few, however, had rallied and formed a definitely menacing group as they followed the two fugitives.

“I’ll give ’em something to think about besides us,” said von Horst, and as they passed the roaring fire he threw his cartridge belt into it.

As they neared the gate he spoke again to La-ja. “Run,” he said. “I’ll try to hold them for a moment or two;” then he wheeled and faced the oncoming bison-men. There were only about a dozen of them sober enough to control their actions or hold to a fixed purpose. The majority of the others were milling about the fire or lying helpless on the ground, and even the dozen were erratic in their movements.

Von Horst loosed an arrow at the nearest of the pursuers. It caught him in the belly, and he went down shrieking and bellowing. A second arrow bowled over another. The remainder were quite close now, too close for comfort. He sent another arrow into a third; and that stopped them, momentarily at least. Then the cartridges in the fire began to explode. At the first detonation those who were pursuing the fugitives turned to see what had caused this startling sound, and simultaneously von Horst wheeled and started for the gate.

He found La-ja standing directly behind him, but she too turned and ran the instant that she saw that he was leaving.

“I thought I told you to run,” he said.

“What good would it have done, if you had been recaptured or killed?” she demanded. “They would only have caught me again. But it would have done them no good. Kru would not have had me.”

He saw then that she carried her stone knife in her hand, and a lump rose in his throat from pity for her. He wanted to take her in his arms from sympathy, but when one is running from imminent death one cannot very well take a woman who hates one into one’s arms.

“But you might have escaped and reached Lo-har,” he protested.

“There are other things in the world beside reaching Lo-har,” she replied enigmatically.

They were past the gates now. Behind them rose the din of exploding cartridges and the mad bellowing of the bison-men. Before them stretched an open, rolling, tree-dotted valley. To their left was the great forest, to their right a fringe of trees at the base of low, wooded cliffs.

Von Horst bore to the right.

“The forest is closer,” suggested La-ja.

“It is in the wrong direction,” he replied. “Lo-har should lie in the direction we are going. It does, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, in this general direction.” “But more important is the fact that if we got into the great forest we’d lose ourselves in no time—and no telling where we’d come out.” La-ja glanced back. “I think they’re gaining on us,” she said. “They are very fast. “ Von Horst realized that they’d never reach the cliffs ahead of their pursuers, that their break for liberty had only delayed the inevitable.

“I have a few more arrows left,” he said. “We can keep on until they overtake us. Something may happen—a miracle, and it will have to be a miracle. If nothing does, we can make a stand for it. I may be able to kill off enough of them to frighten the others away while we make a fresh start for the cliffs.”

“Not a chance,” said La-ja. “Look back there near the village.”

Von Horst whistled. More warriors were emerging from the gateway. Evidently Kru was sending all who could stand on their feet to join in the pursuit.

“It looks like a hard winter,” he remarked: “Winter? queried La-ja. “I see nothing but Ganaks. Where is the winter?” She was panting from exertion, and her words came in little gasps.

“Well, let it pass. We’d better save our breath for running.”

Thereafter they bent all their energies to the task of out-distancing the bison-men, but without hope. Constantly they lost ground; yet they were nearing the cliffs and the little fringe of wood that half hid them.

Von Horst did not know why he felt so certain that they might be safe if they reached the cliffs; yet he did feel it, and his judgment seemed justified by the fact that the bison-men appeared so anxious to overtake them as quickly as possible. If they had known that the fugitives could not escape even after reaching the cliffs, it seemed reasonable to assume that they would have shown less haste and excitement and would have trailed more slowly and with far less exertion.

Presently La-ja stumbled and fell. Yon Horst wheeled and was at her side instantly. She seemed very weak as he helped her to her feet.

“It’s no use,” she said. “I cannot go on. I have been running away from Skruf for a long time, always without sufficient food or rest. It has made me weak. Go on without me. You might easily save yourself. There is nothing more that you can do for me.”’

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll make our stand here. We’d have had to made it pretty soon anyway.”

He turned to glance at the oncoming half-beasts. In a moment they’d be within arrow range. There were nine of them, and he had six arrows left. If he got six of the pursuers he might bluff off the other three, but how about the swarm that was now pouring up the valley from the village?

He was thinking how futile was his foolish little stand against such odds, when something impelled him to turn suddenly and look at La-ja. It was one of those strange, psychic phenomena which most of us have experienced, and which many trained researchers ridicule; yet the force which caused von Horst to turn about seemed almost physical, so powerfully did it affect him and so peremptorily. And as he turned he voiced a cry of alarm and leaped forward, seizing La-ja’s right wrist.

“La-ja!” he cried: “Thank the Lord I saw you.” He wrenched her stone knife from her fingers, and then dropped her hand. He had broken out into a cold sweat and was trembling.

“How could you? La-ja, how could you?” “It is best,” she said. “If I were dead you might escape. Soon they will take us; and then we shall both die; for they will kill you, and I will kill myself. I will not let Kru have me.” “No,” he said, “that is right; but wait until all hope is gone.” “It is gone. You have already done too much for me. The least I can do is to make you free to save yourself. Give me back my knife.” He shook his head.

“But if they get me, and I have no knife, how can I escape Kru?”

“I’ll let you have it,” he said, “if you’ll promise not to do that until after I am dead. As long as I live there is hope.”

“I promise,” she said. “I do not want to die. I just wanted to save you.”

“Because you hate me?” he asked with a half-smile.

“Perhaps,” she replied unsmilingly. “Perhaps I do not want to be under such obligations to one I don’t like—or perhaps—”

He handed the knife back to her. “You have promised me,” he reminded her.

“I shall keep my promise. Look; they are very close.”

He turned then and saw that the bison-men were almost within bow-shot. He fitted an arrow and waited. They saw, and came more slowly. Now they spread out to afford him a poorer target. He had not given them credit for that much sense.

“I’ll get some of them,” he called back to La-ja. “I wish you would run for the cliffs. I think you could make it. I am sure I can hold them for a while.”

The girl did not reply and he could not take his eyes from the bison-men long enough even to glance back at her. His bow twanged. A bison-man screamed and fell.

“I’m getting pretty hot at this archery stuff,” he commented aloud. This evidence of childish pride upon the very threshold of death amused him, and he smiled. He thought that if he were home he could give exhibitions at town fairs. Perhaps he could even learn to shoot backward through a mirror as he had seen rifle experts do. It was all very amusing. He pictured the embarrassment of his fellow officers and other friends when they saw large colored lithographs announcing the coming of “Lieutenant Frederich Wilhelm Eric von Mendeldorf und von Horst, Champion Archer of the World. Admission 25 pfennings.”

He loosed another arrow, still smiling. “I think I shall charge more admission,” he mused as another bison-man dropped. “I’m pretty good.”

La-ja interrupted his amusing train of thought with an exclamation of despair. “A tandor is coming, Von,” she cried. “It is coming for us. Its tail is up, and it is coming straight for us. It must be an old bull that has gone mad. They are terrible.”

Von Horst glanced back. Yes, a mammoth was coming; and it was coming straight as an arrow in their direction. There could be no doubt but that it had seen them and was trotting up to charge. When it got closer it would trumpet, its tail and trunk and ears would all go up; and it would barge down on them like a runaway locomotive. There would be no escaping it, Bison-men in front, a mad mammoth in the rear!

“This doesn’t seem to be our lucky day,” he said.

“Day?” inquired La-ja. “What is day?” The bison-men were watching the mammoth. Behind them their fellows were approaching rapidly. Soon there would be fully a hundred of them. Von Horst wondered if they would stand the charge of a mammoth. They bore no arms. How could they defend themselves. Then he glanced back at the mammoth, and his heart leaped. It was quite close now, and it was about to charge. He could see the patch of white hair on its left jowl quite plainly. He voiced the call with which the great beast had been so familiar. Simultaneously the great trunk went up, a thunderous trumpeting shook the earth, and Old White charged.

Von Horst swept La-ja into his arms and stood there in the path of the gigantic monster. Could it be that Old White did not know him, or had he really gone mad and bent on killing, no matter whom, just for the sake of killing?

The girl clung to the man. He felt her arms about his neck, her firm young breasts pressed against his body, and he was resigned. If it were death, he could not have chosen a happier end—in the arms of the woman he loved.

With a squeal of rage, Old White brushed past them so close that he almost bowled them over and bore down upon the bison-men. These scattered but they did not run. Then it was that van Horst saw how they fought the mighty tandor.

Leaping aside, they sprang in again, goring at the great beast’s side and belly as he raced past. They were thrown down by the impact, but they were on their feet again instantly. As a group lured Old White in one direction, fifty Ganaks rushed in upon his sides and rear seeking to reach and tear him with their stout horns. Perhaps they had overcome other mammoths in this way, for it was evident that they were but following an accustomed routine; but Old White was not as other mammoths. When he had felt a few horns tear his tough sides he ceased charging. He did not let any of them get behind him again. He moved slowly toward them, reminding von Horst of a huge cat stalking a bird. The bison-men waited for the charge, ready to leap aside and then in to gore him; but he did not charge. He came close and then made a short, quick rush, seized a bison-man, raised him high above his head and hurled him with terrific force among his fellows, downing a dozen of them. Before they could collect themselves, Old White was among them, trampling and tossing, until those who managed to elude him were glad to run for their village as fast as they could go.

The mammoth pursued them for a short distance picking up a few stragglers and hurling them far ahead among the frightened, bellowing herd; then he turned about and came at his slow, swinging pace toward von Horst and the girl.

“Now he will kill us!” she cried. “Why didn’t we run away while we had the chance?”

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