“And the girl, too!” exclaimed Skruf.
“Yes,” said von Horst, “it is indeed we. To what do we owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit? We had thought of you as being safely beside the home fires of Basti cooking your meat, and here you are waiting to be cooked as some one else’s meat! Ah, but is not life filled with surprises? Some pleasurable, some—er—not so pleasurable.”
“If I could break these bonds and get my hands on you!” shouted Frug.
“Yes? What would you do then, my man?” inquired von Horst.
“I’d break your neck; I’d pound your face to a pulp; I’d—”
“Wait,” begged von Horst. “Permit me to suggest a different order of procedure. If you were to break my neck first, as you intimate is your intention; you would derive little pleasure from beating my face to a pulp, as I should be dead and therefore unable to appreciate what you were doing to me. Really, Frug, you are not very bright. I cannot conceive how a person of such limited intelligence ever came to be chosen chief of Basti, but perhaps you were chosen because of the circumference of your biceps rather than for that of your cranium.”
The Gorbuses had dumped a quantity of fruit and nuts upon the floor of the cave and departed, leaving the cavern again in semi-darkness. Frug was still struggling with his bonds. Skruf was whimpering and moaning. Von Horst was contemplating the food. “We can negotiate the softer fruit with our hands tied behind us,” he remarked to La-ja, “but how do they expect us to crack the shells of some of those nuts.”
“Perhaps we can free our hands,” suggested the girl. “Roll over close to me, with your back against mine; then try to untie the thongs that bind my wrists. If you can free me, I can easily free you.”
She had spoken in a low whisper lest Frug or Skruf hear and act upon the suggestion before she and von Horst were free. The European wriggled his body into position behind that of the girl; then he fell to work upon the knots at her wrists. It was a slow process, partially because he could not see what he was doing and partially because of the limited use he had of his hands; but after what seemed an eternity he felt a knot loosening. With practice he became more adept, and soon the second knot gave to his perseverance. There were several more; but eventually the last one succumbed, and La-ja’s hands were free. Immediately she rolled over, facing his back; and he could feel her nimble fingers searching out the secret of the knots. When she touched his hands or arms he experienced a strange thrill that was new to him. He had felt the contact of her flesh before but always then she had been angry and resentful, sometimes violently so; and he had experienced no pleasurable reaction. Now it was different; because, for the first time, she was ministering to him and of her own free will.
“What are you two doing?” demanded Frug. “You are very quiet. If you think you are going to eat all the food they brought, I’ll tell you you’d better not. I’ll kill you if you try that.”
“Before or after you break my neck?” asked von Horst.
“Before, of course,” snapped Frug. “No, after. No—what difference does it make? You talk like a fool.”
“And after you have killed me and broken my neck, or broken my neck and killed me, in whichever order you finally decide to proceed, you and Skruf will undoubtedly eat the food. Am I right?”
“Of course you’re right,” growled Frug.
“And do you know the purpose for which the food is intended?” inquired von Horst.
“For us to eat, of course.” “But why should they care whether or not we eat?” asked the European. “Are you laboring under the delusion that they are at all concerned about either our happiness or our comfort?” “Then why did they bring it?” demanded Skruf.
“To fatten us,” explained von Horst. “It seems that they like their meat fat, or perhaps I should say that it tastes less nauseating to them fat and fresh.”
“Fatten us? Eat us?” gasped Skruf.
Frug made no comment, but von Horst could see that he was redoubling his efforts to free himself of his bonds. A moment later La-ja succeeded in negotiating the last knot, and von Horst felt the thongs slip from his wrists. He sat up and gathered a handful of fruit, passing it to La-ja; then he turned to Frug.
“My hands are free,” he said. “I am going to remove your bonds, and then you can liberate Skruf. You are not going to kill me. If you try to, I’ll kill you. I still have the weapon with which Skruf has seen me kill many beasts and you have seen some of your own warriors killed. I am going to set you free for two reasons. One is, that you may eat. The other is not a very good reason unless you have more brains than I give you credit for. I hope for the best, but I am skeptical.”
“My brains are all right,” growled Frug. “What is your other reason for setting us free?”
“We are all in the same fix here,” von Horst reminded him. “If we don’t escape, we shall be killed and eaten. Working together, we may be able to escape. If we waste our time trying to kill one another or trying to keep from being killed, none of us will escape. Now what do you and Skruf intend to do about it? It is up to you. I shall free your hands in any event; and I shall kill you before you can lay your hands on me, if you try to.”
Frug scratched his head. “I swore to kill you,” he said. “You got me into this trouble. If you hadn’t escaped from Basti, I wouldn’t be here. It was while we were tracking you that we were captured. You killed some of my warriors. You liberated all of our slaves, and now you ask me not to kill you.”
Von Horst shrugged, “You are mis-stating the facts,” he said. “I am not asking you not to kill me; I am asking you not to make me kill you. Frug, while I have this weapon, you haven’t a chance on earth to kill me. Perhaps I should have said a chance in the earth.”
“Promise him, Frug,” begged Skruf. “He is right. We can’t escape if we fight among ourselves. At least you and I can’t, for he can kill us both. I have seen him kill with the little black stick. He does not have to be near the thing he wishes to kill.”
“Very well,” Frug finally assented. “We will not try to kill one another until after we have escaped from these people.”
Von Horst moved over to the Chief of Basti and removed the bonds from his wrists; then Frug released Skruf. All but the latter immediately fell to eating. Skruf sat apart, his face resolutely turned away from the food.
“Why don’t you eat?” demanded Frug.
“And get fat?” cried Skruf. “The rest of you can get fat and be eaten, but I shall remain so thin that no one will eat me.”
Time passed, as it must even in a timeless world. They ate and slept, but von Horst and La-ja never slept at the same time—Frug and Skruf had indicated too great an interest in the pistol. When von Horst slept, La-ja watched. Durg came occasionally to talk with them. He always appeared friendly, but he could hold out no hope that they might eventually escape the fate that Torp had decreed for them.
Von Horst had often wondered where the nuts and fruits came from with which they were fed, as he had seen no sign of either in the grim forest he and La-ja had traversed. He had a theory that perhaps the end of the forest was not far distant, and this he wished to determine. He had by no means given up hope of escape. When he asked Durg where the Gorbuses got the food for them, he was told that it grew at no great distance, near the edge of the Forest of Death. This was what von Horst was most anxious to hear. He also learned the direction in which they went to gather the fruit. But when he attempted to persuade Durg to assist them in their attempt to escape, he met with flat refusal; and finally he desisted, being careful to give Durg the impression that he had wholly abandoned the idea.
The rich nuts, the lack of exercise soon began to show in added layers of fat. Only Skruf remained noticeably thin, steadfastly refusing to eat more than enough to sustain life. Frug put on fat far more rapidly than either von Horst or La-ja.
Finally Skruf called his attention to it. “They will eat you first,” he prophesied. “You are very fat.”
“Do you think so?” asked the chief, feeling of the fold of fat that encircled his waist. He seemed perturbed. “I thought we were going to try to escape,” he said to von Horst.
“I have been hoping that the Gorbuses would leave for a while,” replied the European, “but only a few of them go away at a time.”
“Most of them are asleep now,” remarked La-ja. “Many of their torches have gone out.”
“That’s right,” said von Horst, looking out into the other chamber. “I’ve never seen so many of them asleep at one time.”
“I think they have been feeding,” said La-ja. “They have been going out in small parties constantly since I slept last. Perhaps that is why they are sleepy.”
“There go some more torches,” whispered von Horst. “There are only a few burning now.”
“And all the rest of the Gorbuses are nodding.” La-ja could not hide her excitement. “If they all fall asleep, we can get away.”
But they did not all sleep. One remained awake, nursing his torch. It was Torp. Finally he arose and approached the cave where the prisoners were confined. When they saw him coming they lay down in such positions as to hide the fact that their hands were free, as they had in the past whenever a Gorbus came to their cave. Torp entered, carrying his torch. He looked them over carefully. Finally he poked Skruf with a foot. “There is no use waiting for you to get fat,” he grumbled. “We will kill you after this sleep; then we won’t have to feed you any more.”
“Kill the other first,” begged Skruf; “They are much fatter than I. Give me a chance, and I will get fat.”
Torp yawned. “Well kill you all at the same time,” he said; then he turned to leave the cave.
Von Horst looked beyond him and saw that every torch in the outer room was extinguished—the place lay in utter darkness. Then he leaped silently to his feet, drawing his pistol as he did so. Raising the pistol, von Horst struck Torp a single heavy blow on the skull. Without a sound, the fellow dropped in his tracks. Von Horst seized his torch.
“Come!” he whispered.
Silently the four ran across the larger cavern to one of the exits and up the steeply inclined shaft to the corridor that led to the outer world. As they passed from the dim precincts of the cavern even the grim and gloomy wood looked fair and lovely by comparison.
How long they had been imprisoned von Horst could not even guess, but he felt that it must have been a long time. They had lost count of sleeps, there had been so many; and they had all, with the exception of Skruf, put on considerable weight, indicating that their imprisonment had been of long duration. At a trot they set off in the direction they believed led to the nearest edge of the Forest of Death, for they were determined to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the caves of the Gorbuses before their escape was discovered.
When in good condition, Pellucidarians can maintain a steady trot for great distances; but it was not long before all except Skruf were panting from the exertion—additional proof that they had been long confined. At length they were forced to slacken their gait to a walk.
“When do we commence killing one another, Frug?” inquired von Horst. “The truce was to last only until we had escaped—and we have escaped.”
Frug eyed the pistol in its holster and pulled on his beard, meditatively. “Let us wait until we have left the forest and separated,” he suggested; “then, if we ever meet again, I shall kill you.”
“For your sake let us hope that we never meet again,” laughed von Horst, “but what assurance have I that in the meantime you and Skruf will honor the agreement? I certainly have no reason to trust Skruf.”
“No one trusts Skruf,” replied Frug; “but you have my word that I will not kill either one of you until after we separate, and I promise Skruf that I will kill him if he does.”
With this loose understanding von Horst had to be satisfied; but he felt some confidence in Frug’s word, because the very nature of the man seemed to preclude any possibility of duplicity on his part. He was brutal and savage, but he was also forthright and candid. If he intended killing you, he climbed to a house top and screamed it to the world. He was not the sort to sneak up on a man from behind and stab him in the back—that was more like Skruf.
And so they hurried on until, at last, much sooner than they had expected, the forest thinned, the type of trees changed, and they came into what seemed a new world. Once again the noon-day sun beat down upon lush vegetation growing between the boles of an open forest. Flowers bloomed, birds sang. Presently they saw an open plain upon which they stood at the outer rim of the forest land. No sign of pursuit had developed, and the Pellucidarians were certain that the Gorbuses would never venture out into the sunlight beyond their gloomy wood.
“They won’t follow us here,” said Frug. “No man has ever seen a Gorbus outside the Forest of Death.”
“Then lets find a place to sleep,” suggested von Horst. “We need rest. Afterward we can go on until we are ready to separate.”
“Which way do you go?” demanded Frug.
Von Horst looked questioningly at La-ja. “Which way?” he asked.
The girl pointed out across the plain.
“That is the way I go, too,” said von Horst.
“We turn this way,” said Frug, pointing to the left. “We shall skirt the forest until we can pass around it. I will never enter the Forest of Death again.”
“Then after we have slept we separate,” said von Horst.
“Yes,” replied Frog. “I hope that we shall meet again soon, that I may kill you.”
“When you get an idea into that thick skull of yours, you certainly stick to it,” commented von Horst with a grin.
“We will look for a place to sleep,” announced the Bastian. “There may be caves in this cliff.”
They discovered a place where they could descend the escarpment, and on a natural ledge they found an out-jutting stratum beneath which erosion had worn a large niche in which a dozen men might have found shelter from the hot rays of the sun.
“You sleep first, La-ja,” said von Horst, “and I will watch.”
“I am not sleepy,” she replied. “You sleep. I have slept since you.”
It was a bare rock that von Horst stretched out upon, such a bed as some far distant forebear might have found good but it was a far cry from box springs and hair mattresses. Yet so quickly had the man sloughed the last veneer of civilization and reverted to some primordial type, he seemed quite content with the naked rock; and in a moment he was asleep.
When he awoke he felt that he must have slept for a long time, so thoroughly rested and refreshed was he. He stretched luxuriously before turning over to greet La-ja and see if the others were awake. When he did turn, he found himself alone. Frog and Skruf were gone and La-ja, too.
He stepped to the edge of the shelf before the cave and looked out across the plain and to the left and to the right. There was no one in sight. He thought at first that La-ja had run away from him, and then it occurred to him that Frug and Skruf had stolen her. Anger and resentment swelled in his bosom at the duplicity of the Bastian chief in whose word he had trusted, and then of a sudden a new thought came to him. After all, had Frug broken his pledge? He had only promised not to kill; he had not promised not to abduct!