A Fighting Man of Mars



Edgar Rice Burroughs

MY LANDING was most unfortunate in that it left me in plain sight of the city without any place of concealment in the event that the ruins happened to be occupied by one of the numerous tribes of green men who infest the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom, often making their headquarters in one or another of the deserted cities that line the ancient shore.

The fact that they usually choose to inhabit the largest and most magnificent of the ancient palaces and that these ordinarily stand back some little distance from the water-front rendered it quite possible that even in the event that there were green men in the city I might reach the concealing safety of one of the nearer buildings before I was discovered by them.

My flier being now useless, there was nothing to do but abandon it, and so, with only my weapons, ammunition and a little concentrated rations, I walked quickly in the direction of the age old water-front. Whether or not I reached the buildings unobserved, I was unable to determine, but at any rate I did reach them without seeing any sign of a living creature about.

Portions of many of these ancient, deserted cities are inhabited by the great white apes of Barsoom, which are in many respects more to be feared than the green warriors themselves, for not only are these man-like creatures endowed with enormous strength and characterized by intense ferocity, but they are also voracious man-eaters. So terrible are they that it is said that they are the only living creatures that can instill fear within the breasts of the green men of Barsoom.

Knowing the possible dangers that might lurk within the precincts of this ruin, it may be wondered that I approached it at all, but as a matter of fact there was no safe alternative. Out upon the dead monotony of the ocher moss of the sea bottom, I should have been discovered by the first white ape or green Martian that approached the city from that direction, or that chanced to come from the interior of the ruins to the water-front. It was, therefore, necessary for me to seek concealment until night had fallen, since only by night might I travel in safety across the sea bottom, and, as the city offered the only concealment nearby, I had no choice but to enter it. I can assure you that it was not without feelings of extreme concern that I clambered to the surface of the broad avenue that once skirted the shore of a busy harbor. Across its wide expanse rose the ruins of what once had been shops and warehouses, but whose eyeless windows now looked down upon a scene of arid desolation. Gone were the great ships! Gone the busy, hurrying throngs! Gone the ocean!

Crossing the avenue I entered one of the taller buildings, which I noticed was surmounted by a high tower. The entire structure, including the tower, seemed to be in an excellent state of preservation and it occurred to me that if I could ascend into the latter, I should be able to obtain an excellent view of the city and of the country that lay beyond it to the southwest, which was the direction in which I intended to pursue my search for Jahar I reached the building apparently unobserved, and, entering, found myself in a large chamber, the nature and purpose of which it was no longer possible to determine, since such decorations as may possibly have adorned its walls in the past were no longer discernible and whatever furniture it may have contained to give a clue to its identity had long since been removed. There was an enormous fireplace in the far end of the room and at one side of this fireplace a ramp led downward, and upon the other a similar ramp led upward.

Listening intently for a moment I heard no sound, either within or without the building, so that it was with considerable confidence that I started to ascend the ramp.

Upward I continued from floor to floor, each of which consisted of a single large chamber, a fact which finally convinced me that the building had been a warehouse for the storing of goods passing through this ancient port.

From the upper floor a wooden ladder extended upward through the center of the tower above. It was of solid skeel, which is practically indestructible, so that though I knew it might be anywhere from five hundred thousand to a million years old, I did not hesitate to trust myself to it.

The circular interior core of the tower, upward through which the ladder extended, was rather dark. At each landing there was an opening into the tower chamber at that point, but as many of these openings were closed only a subdued light penetrated to the central core.

I had ascended to the second level of the tower when I thought that I heard a strange noise beneath me.

Just the suggestion of a noise it was, but such utter silence had reigned over the deserted city that the faintest sound must have been appreciable to me.

Pausing in my ascent, I looked down, listening; but the sound which I had been unable to translate was not repeated, and I continued my way on upward.

Having it in my mind to climb as high up in the tower as possible, I did not stop to examine any of the levels that I passed.

Continuing upward for a considerable distance my progress was finally blocked by heavy planking that appeared to form the ceiling of the shaft. Some eight or ten feet below me was a small door that probably led to one of the upper levels of the tower and I could not but wonder why the ladder had been continued on upward above this doorway, since it could serve no practical purpose if it merely ended at the ceiling. Feeling above me with my fingers I traced the outlines of what appeared to be a trap door. Obtaining a firm footing upon the ladder as high up as I could climb, I placed a shoulder against the barrier. In this position I was able to exert considerable pressure upward with the result that presently I felt the planking rise above me and a moment later, to the accompaniment of subdued groans, the trap door swung upward upon ancient wooden hinges long unused. Clambering into the apartment above I found myself upon the top level of the tower, which rose to a height of some two hundred feet above the avenue below. Before me were the corroded remains of an ancient and long obsolete beacon-light, such as were used by the ancients long before the discovery of radium and its practical and scientific application to the lighting requirements of modern civilization upon Barsoom. These ancient lamps were operated by expensive machines which generated electricity, and this one was doubtless used as a beacon for the safe guidance of ancient mariners into the harbor, whose waters once rolled almost to the foot of the tower.

This upper level of the tower afforded an excellent view in all directions. To the north and northeast stretched a vast expanse. To the south was a range of low hills that curved gently in a northeasterly direction, forming in by-gone days the southern shore line of what is still known as the Gulf of Torquas. Toward the west I looked out over the ruins of a great city, which extended far back into low hills, the flanks of which it had mounted as it expanded from the sea shore. There in the distance I could still discern the ancient villas of the wealthy, while in the nearer foreground were enormous public buildings, the most pretentious of which were built upon the four sides of a large quadrangle that I could easily discern a short distance from the water-front. Here, doubtless, stood the official palace of the jeddak who once ruled the rich country of which this city was the capital and the principal port. There, now, only silence reigns. It was indeed a depressing sight and one fraught with poignant prophecy for us of present day Barsoom.

Where they battled valiantly but futilely against the menace of a constantly diminishing water supply, we are faced with a problem that far transcends theirs in the importance of its bearing upon the maintenance of life upon our planet. During the past several thousand years only the courage, resourcefulness and wealth of the red men of Barsoom have made it possible for life to exist upon our dying planet, for were it not for the great atmosphere plants conceived and built and maintained by the red race of Barsoom, all forms of air breathing creatures would have become extinct thousands of years ago.

As I gazed out over the city, my mind occupied with these dismal thoughts, I again became aware of a sound coming from the interior of the tower beneath me, and, stepping to the open trap, I looked down into the shaft and there, directly below me, I saw that which might well make the stoutest Barsoomian heart quail—the hideous, snarling face of a great white ape of Barsoom.

As our eyes met the creature voiced an angry growl and, abandoning its former stealthy approach, rushed swiftly up the ladder. Acting almost mechanically I did the one and only thing that might even temporarily stay its rush upon me—I slammed down the heavy trap door above its head, and as I did so I saw for the first time that the door was equipped with a heavy wooden bar, and you may well believe that I lost no time in securing this, thus effectually barring the creature’s ascent by this route into the veritable cul de sac in which I had placed myself.

Now, indeed, was I in a pretty predicament—two hundred feet above the city with my only avenue of escape cut off by one of the most feared of all the savage beasts of Barsoom.

I had hunted these creatures in Thark as a guest of the great green Jeddak, Tars Tarkas, and I knew something of their cunning and resourcefulness as well as of their ferocity. Extremely man-like in conformation, they also approach man more closely than any other of the lower orders in the size and development of their brain. Occasionally these creatures are captured when young and trained to perform, and so intelligent are they that they can be taught to do almost anything that man can do that lies within the range of their limited reasoning capacity. Man has, however, never been able to subdue their ferocious nature and they are always the most dangerous of animals to handle, which probably accounts more even than their intelligence for the interest displayed by the large audiences that they unfailingly attract.

In Hastor I have paid a good price to see one of these creatures and now I found myself in a position where I should very gladly pay a good deal more not to see one, but from the noise he was making in the shaft beneath me it appeared to me that he was determined that I should have a free show and he a free meal. He was hurling himself as best he could against the trap door, above which I stood with some misgivings which were presently allayed when I realized that not even the vast strength of a white ape could avail against the still staunch and sturdy skeel of the ancient door.

Finally convinced that he could not come at me by this avenue, I set about taking stock of my situation. Circling the tower I examined its outward architecture by the simple expedient of leaning far outward above each of the four sides. Three sides terminated at the roof of the building a hundred and fifty feet below me, while the fourth extended to the pavement of the courtyard two hundred feet below. Like much of the architecture of ancient Barsoom, the surface of the tower was elaborately carved from top to bottom and at each level there were window embrasures, some of which were equipped with small stone balconies. As a rule there was but a single window to a level, and as the window for the level directly beneath never opened upon the same side of the tower as the window for the level above, there was always a distance of from thirty to forty feet between windows upon the same side, and, as I was examining the outside of the tower with a view to its offering me an avenue of escape, this point was of great importance to me, since a series of window ledges, one below another, would have proved a most welcome sight to a man in my position.

By the time I had completed my survey of the exterior of the tower the ape had evidently come to the conclusion that he could not demolish the barrier that kept him from me and I hoped that he would abandon the idea entirely and depart. But when I lay down on the floor and placed an ear close to the door I could plainly hear him just below as he occasionally changed from one uncomfortable position to another upon the small ladder beneath me. I did not know to what extent these creatures might have developed pertinacity of purpose, but I hoped that he might soon tire of his vigil and his thoughts be diverted into some other channel. However, as the day wore to a close this possibility seemed to grow more and more remote until at last I became almost convinced that the creature had determined to lay siege until hunger or desperation forced me from my retreat.

How longingly I gazed at the beckoning hills beyond the city where lay my route toward the southwest—toward fabled Jahar.

The sun was low in the west. Soon would come the sudden transition from daylight to darkness, and then what? Perhaps the creature would abandon its vigil; hunger or thirst might attract it elsewhere, but how was I to know? How easily it might descend to the bottom of the tower and await me there, confident that sooner or later I must come down.

One unfamiliar with the traits of these savage creatures might wonder why, armed as I was with sword and pistol, I did not raise the trap door and give battle to my jailer. Had I known positively that he was the only white ape in the vicinity I should not have hesitated to do so, but experience assured me that there was doubtless an entire herd of them quartered in the ruined city. So scarce is the flesh they crave that it is their ordinary custom to hunt alone, so that in the event that they make a kill they may be more certain of retaining the prize for themselves, but if I should attack him he would most certainly raise such a row as to attract his fellows, in which event my chance for escape would have been reduced to the ultimate zero.

A single shot from my pistol might have dispatched him, but it was equally possible that it would not, for these great white apes of Barsoom are tremendous creatures, endowed with almost unbelievable vitality. Many of them stand fully fifteen feet in height and are endowed by nature with tremendous strength. Their very appearance is demoralizing to an enemy; their white, hairless bodies are in themselves repulsive to the eye of a red man; the great shock of white hair bristling erect upon their pates accentuates the brutality of their countenances, while their intermediary set of limbs, which they use either as arms or legs as necessity or whim suggests, render them most formidable antagonists. Quite generally they carry a club, in the use of which they are terribly proficient. One of them, therefore, seemed sufficiently a menace in itself, so that I had no desire to attract others of its kind, though I was fully aware that eventually I might be forced to carry the battle to him.

Just as the sun was setting my attention was attracted toward the water-front where the long shadows of the city were stretching far out across the dead sea bottom. Riding up the gentle acclivity toward the city was a party of green warriors, mounted upon their great savage thoats. There were perhaps twenty of them, moving silently over the soft moss that carpeted the bottom of the ancient harbor, the padded feet of their mounts giving forth no sound. Like specters, they moved in the shadows of the dying day, giving me further proof that Fate had led me to a most unfriendly shore, and then, as though to complete the trilogy of fearsome Barsoomian menaces, the roar of a banth rolled down out of the hills behind the city.

Safe from observation in the high tower above them, I watched the party as it emerged from the hollow of the harbor and rode out upon the avenue below me, and then for the first time I noted a small figure seated in front of one of the warriors. Darkness was coming swiftly now, but before the little cavalcade passed out of sight momentarily behind the corner of the building, as it entered another avenue leading toward the heart of the city, I thought that I recognized the little figure as that of a woman of my own race. That she was a captive was a foregone conclusion and I could not but shudder as I contemplated the fate that lay in store for her. Perhaps my own Sanoma Tora was in equal jeopardy. Perhaps—but no, that could not be possible—how could Sanoma Tora have fallen into the clutches of warriors of the fierce horde of Torquas?

It could not be she. No, that was impossible. But the fact remained that the captive was a red woman, and whether she were Sanoma Tora or another, whether she were from Helium or Jahar, my heart went out in sympathy to her and I forgot my own predicament as something within me urged me to pursue her captors and seek to snatch her from them; but, alas, how futile seemed my fancy. How might I, who might not even save himself, aspire to the rescue of another?

The thought galled me, it hurt my pride, and forthwith I determined that if I would not chance dying to save myself, I might at least chance it for a woman of my own race, and always in the back of my head was the thought that perhaps the object of my solicitude might, indeed, be the woman I loved.

Darkness had fallen as I pressed my ear again to the trap door. All was silent below so that presently I became assured that the creature had departed. Perhaps he was lying in wait for me further down, but what of that? I must face him eventually if he elected to remain. I loosened my pistol in its holster and was upon the point of slipping the bar that secured the door when I distinctly heard the beast directly beneath me.

For an instant I paused. What was the use? It meant certain death to raise that door, and in what way might I be profiting either myself or the poor captive if I gave my life thus uselessly? But there was an alternative—one that I had been planning to adopt in case of necessity from the moment that I had first examined the exterior construction of the tower. It offered a slender chance of escape from my predicament and even a very slender chance was better than what would confront me should I raise the trap door.

I stepped to one of the windows of the tower and looked down upon the city. Neither moon was in the sky; I could see nothing. Toward the interior of the city I heard the squealing of thoats. There would the camp of the green men be located. Thus by the squealing of their vicious mounts would I be guided to it. Again a hunting banth roared in the hills. I sat upon the sill and swung both legs across and then turning on my belly slipped silently over the edge until I hung only by my hands. Groping with my sandaled toes, I felt for a foothold upon the deep-cut carvings of the tower’s face. Above me was a blue-black void shot with stars; below me a blank and empty void. It might have been a thousand sofads to the roof below me, or it might have been one; but though I could see nothing I knew that it was one hundred and fifty and that at the bottom lay death if a foot or a hand slipped.

In daylight the sculpturing had seemed large and deep and bold, but by night how different! My toes seemed to find but hollow scratches in a smooth surface of polished stone. My arms and fingers were tiring. I must find a foothold or fall, and then, when hope seemed gone, the toe of my right sandal slipped into a horizontal groove and an instant later my left found a hold.

Flattened against the sheer wall of the tower I lay there resting my tired fingers and arms for a moment and when I felt that they would bear my weight again I sought for hand holds. Thus painfully, perilously, monotonously, I descended inch by inch. I avoided the windows, which naturally greatly increased the difficulty and danger of my descent; yet I did not care to pass directly in front of them for fear that by chance the ape might have descended from the summit of the ladder and would see me.

I cannot recall that ever in my life I felt more alone than I did that night as I was descending the ancient beacon-tower of that deserted city for not even hope was with me. So precarious were my holds upon the rough stone that my fingers were soon numb and exhausted. How they clung at all to those shallow cuts, I do not know. The only redeeming feature of the descent was the darkness, and a hundred times I blessed my first ancestors that I could not see the dizzy depths below me; but on the other hand it was so dark that I could not tell how far I had descended; nor did I dare to look up where the summit of the tower must have been silhouetted against the starlit sky for fear that in doing so I should lose my balance and be precipitated to the courtyard or the roof below. The air of Barsoom is thin; it does not greatly diffuse the starlight, and so, while the heavens above were shot with brilliant points of light, the ground beneath was obliterated in darkness.

Yet I must have been nearer the roof than I thought when that happened which I had been assiduously endeavoring to prevent the scabbard of my long sword pattered noisily against the face of the tower. In the darkness and the silence it seemed a veritable din, but, however exaggerated it might appear to me, I knew that it was sufficient to reach the ears of the great ape in the tower. Whether a suggestion of its import would occur to him, I could not guess—I could only hope that he would be too dull to connect it with me or my escape.

But I was not to be left long in doubt, for almost immediately afterward a sound came from the interior of the tower that sounded to my over-wrought nerves like a heavy body rapidly descending a ladder. I realize now that imagination might easily have construed utter silence into such a sound, since I had been listening so intensely for that very thing that I might easily have worked myself into such a state of nervous apprehension that almost any sort of an hallucination was possible.

With redoubled speed and with a measure of recklessness that was almost suicidal, I hastened my descent and an instant later I felt the solid roof beneath my feet.

I breathed a sigh of relief, but it was destined to be but a short sigh and but brief relief, for almost instantly I was made aware that the sound from the interior of the tower had been no hallucination as the huge bulk of a great white ape loomed suddenly from a doorway not a dozen paces from me.

As he charged me he gave forth no sound. Evidently he had not held his solitary vigil this long with any intention of sharing his feast with another. He would dispatch me in silence, and, with similar intent I drew my long sword, rather than my pistol, to meet his savage charge.

What a puny, futile thing I must have appeared confronting that towering mountain of bestial ferocity.

Thanks be to a thousand fighting ancestors that I wielded a long sword with swiftness and with strength; otherwise I must have been gathered into that savage embrace in the brute’s first charge. Four powerful hands were reached out to seize me, but I swung my long sword in a terrific cut that severed one of them cleanly at the wrist and at the same instant I leaped quickly to one side, and as the beast rushed past me, carried onward by its momentum, I ran my blade deep into its body. With a savage scream of rage and pain it sought to turn upon me, but its foot slipped upon its own dismembered hand and it stumbled awkwardly on trying to regain its equilibrium, but that it never accomplished, and still stumbling grotesquely it lunged over the edge of the roof to the courtyard below.

Fearing that the beast’s scream might attract others of its kind to the roof, I ran swiftly to the north edge of the building where I had noted from the tower earlier in the afternoon a series of lower buildings adjoining, over the roofs of which I might possibly accomplish my descent to the street level.

Cold Cluros was rising above the distant horizon, shedding his pale light upon the city so that I could plainly see the roofs below me as I came to the north edge of the building. It was a long drop, but there was no safe alternative, since it was quite probable that should I attempt to descend through the building, I would meet other members of the ape’s herd who had been attracted by the scream of their fellow.

Slipping over the edge of the roof I hung an instant by my hands and then dropped. The distance was about two ads, but I alighted safely and without injury. Upon your own planet, with its larger bulk and greater gravity, I presume that a fall of that distance might be serious, but not so, necessarily, upon Barsoom.

From this roof I had a short drop to the next, and from that I leaped to a low wall and thence to the ground below.

Had it not been for the fleeting glimpse of the girl captive that I had caught just at sunset, I should have set out directly for the hills west of the town, banth or no banth, but now I felt strongly upon me a certain moral obligation to make the best efforts that I could for succoring the poor unfortunate that had fallen into the clutches of these cruelest of creatures.

Keeping well within the shadows of the buildings I moved stealthily toward the central plaza of the city, from which direction I had heard the squealing of the thoats.

The plaza was a full haad from the water-front and I was compelled to cross several intersecting avenues as I cautiously made my way toward it, guided by an occasional squeal from the thoats quartered in some deserted palace courtyard.

I reached the plaza in safety, confident that I had not been observed.

Upon the opposite side I saw light within one of the great buildings that faced it, but I dared not cross the open space in the moonlight and so still clinging to the shadows I moved to the far end of the quadrangle where Cluros cast his densest shadows, and thus at last I won to the building in which the green men were quartered. Directly before me was a low window that must have opened into a room adjoining the one in which the warriors were congregated. Listening intently I heard nothing within the chamber and slipping a leg over the sill I entered the dark interior with the utmost stealth.

Tiptoeing across the room to find a door through which I might look into the adjoining chamber, I was suddenly arrested as my foot touched a soft body and I froze into rigidity, my hand upon my long sword, as the body moved.

A Fighting Man Of Mars - Contents    |     Four - Tavia

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