“Stick your leg through this,” he said to von Horst, “and hold on tight.”
Two other warriors approached and took hold of the rope with the first. “Get over the edge,” directed Horg.
“Your troubles will soon be over. I would almost like to change places with you.”
Von Horst grinned. “No thanks,” he said. “I know when I’m well off.”
“When you reach the bottom, step out of the rope,” instructed Horg; then the three lowered him to the floor of the canyon.
As they pulled the rope up again they tossed down a stone knife and a stone tipped spear; then they lowered another prisoner. It was Frug.
The chief of the Basti glowered at von Horst. “You’ve got me into a nice mess,” he growled.
“You are rationalizing, my friend,” replied von Horst. “You are also passing the buck, as my American friends so quaintly put it; all of which confirms an opinion I have long held—that styles in whiskers and bowler hats may change, but human nature never.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.” “It is quite immaterial. If I am any sort of a judge, nothing that we may or think down here at the bottom of the little canyon will ever be material to anyone, not even to ourselves.” From above were dropped weapons for Frug; and then, one by one, the three remaining prisoners were lowered and armed. The five doomed men stood in a little group waiting for death, wondering, perhaps, in what form the grim reaper would present himself. They were stalwart men, all; and each in his own mind had doubtless determined to sell his life as dearly as possible. The fact that they had been armed must have held out a faint hope that they might be given a chance, however slender, to win life and freedom in combat.
Von Horst was scrutinizing the three he had not previously seen. “Which of you is from Lo-har?” he asked.
“I am from Lo-har,” said the youngest of the three. “Why do you ask?”
“I have been long with a girl from Lo-har,” replied von Horst. “Together we escaped from Basti, where we were being held in slavery. We were on our way to Lo-har when two men from Basti stole her from me while I slept.”
“Who was this girl?” inquired the man from Lo-har.
The man whistled in surprise. “The daughter of Brun, the Chief,” he said. “Well, you are just as well off here as you would have been had you succeeded in reaching Lo-har with her.”
“Why?” demanded von Horst. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you can only be killed here; and if you had reached Lo-har with La-ja, Gaz would have killed you. He has been on the warpath ever since La-ja disappeared. It is a good thing for the Bastians that he did not know who stole her. Gaz is a mighty man. Single handed he might destroy a whole tribe such as the Bastians.”
Gaz again! Von Horst was almost sorry that he was never to have the opportunity to see this doughty warrior.
He turned to Frug. “The man from Lo-har doesn’t think much of you Bastians,” he taunted.
“Is he a Bastian?” demanded the Lo-harian.
“He is the chief,” explained von Horst.
“I am Daj of Lo-har,” cried the young warrior. “You stole the daughter of my chief, you eater of men. I kill!”
He leaped toward Frug, holding his stone-tipped spear like a bayoneted rifle. Frug sprang back, parrying the first thrust. A shout of approval rose from the savage audience on the ledge above. Then the two men settled down to a stern relentless dual. Frug outweighed his opponent by fifty pounds, but the other had the advantage of youth and agility. The former sought to rush Daj and bear him down by sheer physical weight, but Daj was too quick for him. Each time, he leaped aside; and on Frug’s third attempt, Daj dodged as he had before; then he wheeled quickly and jabbed his spear into the Bastian’s side.
The mammoth-men shouted their approval. “Kill! Kill!” they screamed. Frug roared with pain and rage, wheeled again and lumbered down upon Daj. This time the Lo-harian stood his ground until Frug was almost upon him; then he crouched suddenly beneath the extended weapon of his adversary and thrust viciously upward into the belly of the Bastian. As Frug writhed, screaming, upon the ground, Daj wrenched his weapon from the other’s belly and plunged it through his heart. Thus died the Chief, Frug of Basti; thus was La-ja avenged by one of her own clan.
Amidst the shouts and yells of the mammoth-men, the man from Amdar shouted, “Look! Tarags! There,” and pointed toward the opposite side of the canyon.
With the others, von Horst looked. The grating that had been before the entrance to the cave had been raised by warriors from above, and now five great tarags were slinking onto the floor of the canyon—five mighty, saber-toothed tigers.
“Tandors!” exclaimed the man from Go-hal. “They are turning the tandors loose on us. They give us a spear and a knife to fight tarags and tandors.”
“They think well of us as fighting men,” said von Horst, grinning, as he glanced toward the upper end of the canyon and saw that the mammoths had been released from the corral.
There were five mammoths, bulls that were untamable killers. One of them towered above his fellows, a huge monster, bellowing angrily as it caught the scent of the tarags and the men. The five moved ponderously down toward the center of the canyon, while the great cats crossed directly toward the five men awaiting their doom. Thus the paths of the beasts seemed certain to meet before the tarags reached the men. But one of the latter trotted ahead, so that it seemed apparent that it would cross in front of the mammoths and reach the four prisoners without interruption.
Van Horst was sufficiently familiar with the tempers of both mammoths and tigers to know that, being hereditary enemies, they would attack one another if they came in contact. Just what this would mean to himself and his fellow prisoners he could only guess. Perhaps enough of them might be disabled in the ensuing battle to permit the men to dispatch those that were not killed. Whether or not they would be any better off then, he did not know. It might be that those who survived would be released. He asked Daj of Lo-har about it.
“The mammoth-men never let a prisoner escape if they can help it,” replied Daj. “If we are not killed by the beasts, we shall be killed in some other way.”
“If we can reach the upper end of the canyon,” said von Horst, “we may be able to escape. I see a little trail there running from beside the corral to the summit. I have been told that if we can escape in that way the mammoth-men will not pursue us, as it would take them into a country that, for some reason, they never enter.”
“The tarags and the tandors will never permit us to reach the upper end of the canyon,” replied Daj.
The tarag that was in the lead was preparing to charge. He crouched low, now, and crept forward. His sinuous tail twitched nervously. His blazing eyes were fixed upon von Horst who stood a little in advance of his fellows. Behind this tarag the others had met the tandors. The canyon thundered to the roaring and trumpeting and screaming of the challenging beasts.
“Run for the upper end of the canyon,” von Horst called back to his companions. “Some of you may escape.”
The tarag charged, his lips stretched in a hideous snarl that bared his great saber teeth to the gums, his jaws distended. Roaring, he charged upon the puny man-thing. Once before had von Horst stopped the charge of a tarag with a stone tipped spear. That time he had accorded the palm to luck. It seemed incredible that such luck would hold again. Yet, had it been wholly luck? Skill and strength and iron nerve had been contributing factors in his victory. Would they hold again against this devil-faced demon?
As the tarag rose in its final spring, von Horst dropped to one knee and planted the butt of the spear firmly against the ground. He was very cool and deliberate, though he had to move with lightning speed. He held the point of the spear forward, aiming it at the broad white chest of the saber-tooth; then, as the beast struck, the man rolled to one side, leaping quickly to his feet.
The spear sank deep into the chest of the tarag, and with a hideous scream the beast rolled in the dust of the canyon floor. But it was up again in an instant seeking with ferocious growls and terrifying roars the author of its hurt. It turned its terrible eyes upon von Horst and tried to reach him; but the butt of the spear, sticking into the ground, drove the point farther into its body; and it stopped to claw at the offending object. Its roars, now, were deafening; but van Horst saw that it was reduced to nothing more menacing than noise and looked about him to see what chance he had to reach the upper end of the canyon. His companions were moving in that direction. To his right, the tarags and mammoths were engaged in a titanic struggle. Three of the former had centered their attack upon the smallest of the bulls. The other four bulls stood in a little group, tail to tail, while the remaining tarag, the largest of the five, circled them.
Von Horst moved in the direction of the upper end of the canyon. He hoped that he might go unnoticed by the beasts, but the great tarag that was circling the four bulls saw him. It stopped in its tracks, eyeing him; and then it came for him. No longer was there a spear with which to dispute the outcome of the encounter with the fanged and taloned beast—the outcome that now must be a foregone conclusion.
The man gauged the distance to the end of the canyon. Could he reach it before the mighty carnivore overtook him? He doubted it. Then he saw the huge bull that he had noticed before break from the group and start forward as though to intercept the tarag. Von Horst imagined that the tandor thought the great cat was trying to escape him and was thus emboldened to pursue and attack.
Now there might be a chance to escape. If the mammoth overtook the saber-tooth before the latter reached von Horst; or if the saber-tooth’s charge were diverted by a threatened attack by the mammoth; then he might easily reach safety while all of the animals in the canyon were occupied with one another. With this slender hope to speed him on, he started to run. But the tarag was not to be denied this easy prey. It paid no attention to the mammoth as it continued on in pursuit of the man. Von Horst, glancing back across a shoulder, was astounded by the terrific speed of the huge mammoth. Like a thorough-bred, it raced to head off the carnivore. The latter gained rapidly upon von Horst. It was a question which would reach him first, and to the man it seemed only a question as to the manner of his death. Would he die with those terrible talons at his vitals, or would he be tossed high in air and then trampled beneath tons of prehistoric flesh?
Upon the rim of the canyon the savage cave-men were howling their delight and approval of this exciting race with death. Mamth had discovered that three of his prisoners had located the path at the upper end of the canyon and were on their way to freedom. That the path was not guarded was due to the fact that the mammoth-men believed that no one but themselves knew of it, and it was so faintly traced upon the canyon’s wall that no one who did not know of its existence could have discovered it.
But now that Mamth saw that the three had reached the end of the canyon and started to ascend, he hurriedly sent warriors to intercept them. Whether they would reach the head of the canyon in time to do so was problematical.
Below, on the floor of the canyon, the tarag leaped to seize von Horst. The savage beast was apparently either indifferent to the close proximity of the mammoth racing now parallel with it, or else it sought to wrest the prey from its competitor. Then a strange thing happened. The mammoth’s trunk shot out with lightning speed and circled the body of the tarag, halting its spring in mid-air. Once the mighty Titan swung the screaming, clawing creature to and fro; then, with all its great strength, it hurled it high in the air and to one side.
Whether by intent or chance it hurled it to the rim of the canyon among the spectators, scattering them in all directions. Infuriated, and only slightly injured, the tarag charged among the fleeing tribesmen, striking them down to right and left.
But none of this von Horst witnessed. He was too much engrossed with his own perilous adventure. And perilous it seemed. For no sooner had the mammoth disposed of the tarag than it encircled the man with its powerful trunk and lifted him high in the air. To von Horst it signified the end. He breathed a silent prayer that it might be soon over and without suffering. As the beast wheeled he had a fleeting glimpse of the melee on the ledge above—the mad tarag, a score of spearmen rallying courageously to meet its savage attack; then he saw the three tarags and the four mammoths engaged in a terrific battle to the accompaniment of trumpeting, screams, growls, and roars that were almost deafening.
The bull that was carrying him aloft moved straight down the canyon at a shuffling trot. Von Horst wondered why he had not been tossed or trampled. Was the creature playing with him to prolong his torture? What was in the sagacious brain of the ponderous monster? Now the trunk curled back, and to von Horst’s amazement he was lowered gently to the beast’s neck. For a moment the trunk held him there until he gained his equilibrium; then it was removed.
Past the madly battling beasts the mammoth bore von Horst toward the lower end of the little canyon. The man settled himself more firmly back of the great ears which he grasped as additional support, and as he did so he chanced to glance down. Upon the mammoth’s left jowl grew a path of white hair!
Ah Ara, ma Rahna—Old White, the Killer! Could it be that the great beast recognized him? Was it repaying the man for the service he had rendered it? Von Horst could scarcely believe this; yet, why else had it refrained from killing him? What was it doing now other than seeking to save him?
Von Horst was well aware of the great sagacity of these huge beasts and the unusual wisdom ascribed to Old White by the mammoth-men; so it was this knowledge and the hope that springs eternal that tended to convince him against his better judgment that he had found a faithful friend and a mighty ally. But what might it avail him? They were still trapped in the little canyon in which blood-mad beasts battled to the death. If he were at the upper end of the canyon, he might escape by the trail; but he was not—he was being borne toward the lower end across which was a massive gate of logs.
That Old White was seeking escape from the canyon in this direction was soon evident. He was directing his shuffling trot straight for the barrier. Now, as he approached it, he increased his gait; and as he came within fifty feet of it, he lowered his head and charged.
Von Horst was aghast. Ahead, upon the instant of impact with the logs of the barrier, lay death for both of them. He thought of slipping from the back of the charging beast. But why? Death beneath the fangs and talons of the great cats might be far more hideous than that which lay just ahead—the terrific impact and then oblivion. There would be no suffering.
The mammoth seems a slow moving, ungainly animal; but it is far from such. Now, in the full rush of its charge, Old White bore down upon the gate of logs with the speed of an express train—a living battering ram of incalculable power. Von Horst lay flat, his arms hooked beneath the great ears. He waited for the end, and he had faced so many dangers in savage Pellucidar since he disembarked from the O-220 that he was not greatly concerned by the imminence of death. Perhaps, now that he had lost La-ja, it would be a welcome surcease of constant battling for survival. After all, was life worth this unremitting strife?
It was all over in a split second. The mighty skull crashed into the heavy barrier. Logs, splintered like matchwood, flew in all directions. The great beast stumbled to its knees over the lower bars, nearly unseating the man; then caught itself and rushed from the little canyon to freedom.