As he hurried on he became more and more imbued with a sense of frustration and the futility of his search, feeling that he was quite probably moving in circles and getting nowhere. He was even impressed by the probability that he might never even find his way out of this labyrinthine maze of gloomy trees, to say nothing of reaching La-ja in time to be of any service to her. And thus his mind was occupied by gloomy thoughts when he came suddenly to the end of the forest. Before him lay the mouth of a canyon leading into low but rugged hills, and here at last was a trail. It wound, well marked, into the canyon.
With renewed hope von Horst stepped confidently out to follow wherever the way might lead; for a brief examination told his now practiced eyes that someone had recently entered the canyon at this point, and faintly in the dust of the trail he saw the imprint of a tiny foot. The canyon was little more than a narrow, rocky gorge winding snake-like into the hills; and as he proceeded he passed the mouths of other similar gorges that entered it at intervals; but the main trail was plain, and he continued upon it, certain now that he must soon overtake La-ja and her captor.
He had been for some little time in the gorge and was becoming impatient with each fresh disappointment when he rounded a bend and did not see those he sought ahead of him, when he heard a noise behind. He turned quickly and saw a bison-man creeping stealthily upon him. The instant that the fellow realized he had been discovered he voiced a bellow that might have issued from the throat of an angry bull. It was answered from down the gorge and from up, and then others came rapidly into view both in front and behind.
Von Horst was trapped. Upon either side the walls of the canyon, while not high, were unscalable; and behind him were bison-men cutting off retreat, and in front were bison-men effectually blocking his advance. Now they were all bellowing. The rocky walls of the gorge reverberated the angry, bestial chorus of challenge and of menace. They had been waiting for him. Von Horst knew it now. They had heard him call to La-ja. They had known he was following, and they had waited in the concealment of one of the gorges he had passed. How easily they had trapped him. But what might he have done to prevent it? How else might he search for La-ja without following where she went?
What was he to do now? The bison-men were coming toward him very slowly. They seemed to hold him in great respect. He wondered if the abductor of La-ja had had either the time or opportunity to tell his fellows of the havoc this strange gilak had played with the four that had first met him. That was one of the tantalizing characteristics of the inner world—that one might never know the measure of elapsed time, which might easily gauge the difference between life and death.
“What are you doing here in our country?” demanded the nearest of the bison-men.
“I have come for the woman,” replied von Horst. “She is mine. Where is she?” “
“Who are you? We never saw a gilak like you before, or one who could send death from a long way off on little sticks.”
“Get me the woman,” demanded von Horst, “or I’ll send death to you all.” He withdrew an arrow from his quiver and fitted it to his bow.
“You cannot kill us all,” said the creature. “You have not as many sticks as there are Ganaks.”
“What are Ganaks?” asked von Horst.
“We are Ganaks. We will take you to Drovan. If he says not to kill you, we will not kill you.”
“Is the woman there?”
“Then I will go. Where is she?” “Follow the Ganaks in front of you up the gorge.” They all moved on then in the direction that von Horst had been going, and presently they came to a large, open valley in which there were many trees dotted picturesquely over gently rolling ground. Out upon the plain a short distance lay what appeared to be a circular, palisaded village; and toward this the bison-men led the way.
As he came nearer, von Horst saw that there were fields of growing crops outside the village and that in these fields men and women were working—human beings like himself, not Ganaks; but there were many Ganak bulls loitering around. These performed no labor.
A single small gateway led into the village which consisted of a complete circle of mud huts, one adjoining the other except in this one spot where the gateway lay. Trees grew all around the circle in front of the huts, spreading shade trees. In the center of the large compound was a cluster of huts; and here too there were shade trees.
To these central huts his guides led von Horst, and here he saw a large bison-man standing in the shade switching the flies from his legs with his tufted tail. Facing him stood La-ja with her captor, and half surrounding them was a curious throng of Ganaks.
As the new party approached, the big bull looked in their direction. He had massive horns, and the hair upon his face and shoulders and chest was heavy. His small, round eyes, set wide apart, were red-rimmed and fierce as they glowered menacingly at von Horst. His head was lowered, much after the manner of a beast’s.
“What is this?” he demanded, indicating von Horst.
“This is the gilak that killed the three who were with me,” said La-ja’s captor.
“Tell me again how he killed them,” directed the big bull.
“He sent little sticks to kill them,” said the other.
“Little sticks do not kill, Trun. You are a fool or a liar.”
“Little sticks did kill the three that were with me and another that was there, a gilak. I saw them kill, Drovan. See them? They are in that thing upon his back.”
“Fetch a slave,” commanded Drovan, “an old one that is not much good.”
Von Horst stood there gazing at La-ja. He scarcely saw or heard what was going on about him. La-ja was looking at him. Her face was almost expressionless.
“So you are not dead yet,” she said.
“I heard you call me, La-ja,” he said “I came as soon as I could.”
She raised her chin. “I did not call you,” she said haughtily.
Von Horst was dumbfounded. He had heard her call, plainly, twice. Suddenly he became angry. His face flushed. “Yon are a little fool,” he said. “You are absolutely without appreciation or gratitude. You are not worth saving.” Then he turned his back on her.
Instantly he regretted his words; but he was hurt—hurt as he never had been in his life before. And he was too proud to retract what he had said.
A bison-man approached bringing an old slave woman with him. He led her to Drovan. The chief gave her a rough push.
“Go over there and stand,” he ordered.
The old woman moved slowly away—a bent and helpless old creature.
“That’s far enough,” shouted Drovan. “Stand there where you are.”
“You!” he bellowed, pointing at van Horst. “What is your name?”
The man eyed the half-beast insolently. He was mad all the way through—mad at himself and the world. “When you speak to me, don’t bellow,” he said.
Drovan lashed his legs angrily with his tail and lowered his head like a mad bull about to charge. He took a few slow steps toward van Horst; and then he stopped and pawed the ground with one foot and bellowed, but the man did not retreat, nor did he show fear.
Suddenly the chief espied the old slave woman standing out in the compound as he had directed her; then he turned again to von Horst. He pointed at the old woman.
“If your sticks will kill,” he said, “kill her. But I do not believe that they will kill.”
“My sticks will kill,” said von Horst. “The Ganaks will see that they will kill.”
He took a few steps out into the compound toward the old slave woman and fitted an arrow to his bow; then he turned toward Drovan and pointed at La-ja.
“Will you set that girl and myself free if I show you that my little sticks will kill?” he demanded.
“No,” growled the chief.
Von Horst shrugged. “Let it be on your own shoulders,” he said; and with that he drew back the feathered shaft, and before anyone could guess his intention or interfere he drove it through Drovan’s heart.
Instantly the compound was a riot of bellowing bulls. They fell upon von Horst before he could fit another arrow to his bow and by weight of numbers bore him to the ground, striking him with their fists and trying to gore him with their horns; but there were so many of them that they interfered with one another.
The man was pretty nearly done for when the attention of his attackers was attracted by a voice of authority.
“Do not kill,” it commanded. “Let him up. It is I, Kru the Chief, who speaks.”
Instantly the bulls abandoned von Horst and turned on the speaker.
“Who says Kru is chief?” demanded one. “It is I, Tant, who will be chief now that Drovan is dead.”
During the argument von Horst had dragged himself to his feet. He was half stunned for a moment, but he soon gathered his wits. Quickly he hunted for his bow and found it. Some of the arrows that had dropped from his quiver during the melee he found and retrieved.
Now his mind was alert. He looked about him. All the bulls were watching the two claimants for the chieftainship, but some of them were ranging themselves closer to Kru than to Tant. A few went hesitantly to Tant’s side. It looked like Kru to von Horst. He stepped over near those who were assembling around Kru.
Surreptitiously he fitted an arrow to his bow. He knew that he was taking a wild chance; and his better judgment told him to mind his own business, but he was still angry and indifferent as to whether he lived or not. Suddenly he straightened up. “Kru is chief!” he cried. Simultaneously he drove an arrow into Tant’s chest. “Are there any others who will not accept Kru as chief?” he demanded.
Some of them who had gathered around Tant ran to strike him down; they charged with lowered horns like bulls. But those about Kru charged to meet them; and as they fought, von Horst moved backward slowly until he stood with his back against the chiefs hut. Close to him stood La-ja. He paid no attention to her, although it was plain to her that he was aware of her presence.
The man was engrossed in the strange tactics of these half-beasts. When they did not clinch they dove with lowered heads for the belly of an antagonist, seeking to disembowel him with their heavy horns. Oftentimes they met head on with such terrific force that both were knocked down. When they clinched, each antagonist seized another by the shoulders; and, straining and tugging, they sought to gore each other in the face or neck or chest.
It was a scene of savage fury made more terrifying by the bellowing and snorting of the combatants; but it was soon over, for those who opposed Kru were few in numbers and without a leader. One by one, those who survived broke away and retreated, leaving the field to Kru.
The new chief, overcome by his importance, strutted about pompously. He sent immediately for the women of Drovan and Tant, of which there were about thirty; and after selecting half of them for himself turned the others over to his followers to be divided by lot.
In the meantime von Horst and La-ja remained in the background practically unnoticed by the bison-men, nor did they call attention to themselves, as it was obvious that the bulls were worked up to a frenzy of hysterical excitement by all that had so recently transpired and by the sight and smell of blood. Presently, however, the eyes of an old bull fell upon them; and he commenced to bellow deep in his chest and paw the ground. He approached them, lowering his head as though about to charge. Von Horst fitted an arrow to his bow. The bull hesitated; then he turned toward Kru.
“The gilaks,” he said. “When do we kill the gilaks or set them to work?”
Kru looked in the direction of the speaker. Von Horst waited for the chiefs answer. It had been upon the hope of his gratitude that he had based his hopes for liberty for himself and La-ja, for he was still thinking of the girl’s welfare. He found that he could not do otherwise, no matter how ungrateful she might be. He wondered how much gratitude, then, he might expect from this brutal bison-man if La-ja accorded him none.
“Well,” said the old bull, “do we kill the gilaks or do we put them to work in the fields?”
“Kill the she!” cried one of the women.
“No,” growled Kru, “the she shall not be killed. Take them away and put them in a hut and guard them. Later Kru will decide what to do with the man.”
Yon Horst and La-ja were taken to a filthy hut. They were not bound. The man’s weapons were not taken away from him, and he could only assume that their captors were too stupid and unimaginative to sense the necessity for such precautions. La-ja went to one side of the hut and sat down, von Horst to the other. They did not speak. The man did not even look at the woman, but her eyes were often upon him.
He was unhappy and almost without hope. If she had been kind to him, even civil, he might have envisioned a future worth fighting for with enthusiasm; but now, without hope of her love, there seemed nothing. The knowledge that he loved her aroused in him only self-contempt, while it should have been a source of pride. He felt only a dull sense of duty to her because she was a woman. He knew that he would try to save her. He knew that he would fight for her, but he felt no elation.
Presently he lay down and slept. He dreamed that he slept in a clean bed between cool sheets, and that when he awoke he put on fresh linen and well pressed clothes and went down to a sumptuous dinner at a perfectly appointed table. A waiter, bringing a salver of food, bumped against his shoulder.
He awoke to see a woman standing beside him. She had kicked his shoulder. “Wake up,” she said. “Here is your fodder.”
She dumped an armful of fresh-cut grass and some vegetables on the filthy floor beside him. “It is for the woman, too,” she said.
Von Horst sat up and looked at the woman. She was not a Ganak, but a human being like himself. “What is the grass for?” he asked.
“To eat,” she replied.
“We do not eat grass,” he said, “and there are not enough vegetables here to make a meal for one.”
“You will eat grass here or you will starve,” said the woman. “We slaves are not allowed many vegetables.”
“How about meat?” inquired von Horst.
“The Ganaks do not eat meat; so there is no meat to eat. I have been here for more sleeps than I can remember, and I have never seen anyone eat meat. You’ll get used to the grass after awhile.”
“Do they put all their prisoners to work in the fields?” asked von Horst.
“You never can tell what they will do. As a rule they keep the women and work them in the fields until they get too old; then they kill them. If they are short of slaves they keep the men for awhile; otherwise they kill them immediately. They have kept me for many sleeps. I belong to Splay. They will give this woman to some one, because she is young. They will probably kill you, as they have plenty of slaves now—more than they care to feed.”
When the woman had gone, von Horst gathered up the vegetables and placed them beside La-ja. The girl looked up at him. Her eyes flashed.
“Why do you do such things?” she demanded. “I do not want you to do anything for me. I do not want to like you.”
Von Horst shrugged. “You are succeeding very well,” he said, dryly.
She mumbled something that he could not catch and commenced to divide the vegetables into two parts. “You eat your share and I shall eat mine,” she said.
“There are not enough for one, let alone two. You’d better keep them all,” he insisted. “Anyway, I don’t care much for raw vegetables.”
“Then you can leave them. I’ll not eat them. If you don’t like the vegetables, eat the grass.”
Von Horst relapsed into silence and commenced to gnaw on a tuber. It was better than nothing—that was about all he could say for it. As the girl ate she occasionally glanced at the man furtively. Once he glanced up and caught her eyes on him, and she looked away quickly.
“Why do you dislike me, La-ja?” he asked. “What have I done.”
“I don’t wish to talk about it. I don’t wish to talk to you at all.”
“You’re not fair,” he remonstrated. “If I knew what I’d done, I might correct it. It would be much pleasanter if we were friends, for we may have to see a lot of each other before we get to Lo-har.”
“We’ll never get to Lo-har.” “Don’t give up hope. These people are stupid. We ought to be able to out-wit them and escape.” “We wont; but if we did you wouldn’t be going to La-har.” “I’m going wherever you go,” he replied doggedly.
“Why do you want to go to Lo-har? You’d only be killed. Gaz would break you in two. But why do you want to goat all?”
“Because you are going,” he said. He spoke scarcely above a whisper, as though to himself.
She looked at him intently, questioningly. Her expression underwent a barely perceptible change, which he did not note because he was not looking at her. It seemed a little less uncompromising. There was the difference between granite and ice—ice is very cold and hard, but it does thaw.
“If you would only tell me what I have done,” he insisted—“why you do not like me.”
“That, I could not say to you,” she replied. “If you were not a fool, you’d know.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I guess I am; so please tell me because I am such a fool.”
“No,” she replied emphatically.
“Couldn’t you give me a clue?—just a little hint?”
She thought for a moment. “Perhaps I could do that,” she said. “You remember that you struck me and carried me away from Basti by force?”
“I did it for your own good, and I apologized,” he reminded her.
“But you did it.”
“And you didn’t do anything about it,” she insisted.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said hopelessly.
“If I believed that, I might forgive you; but I don’t believe anyone can be such a fool.”
He sought to find some explanation of the riddle; but though he racked his brains, he could think of none. What could he have done about it?
“Perhaps,” said La-ja presently, “neither one of us understands the other. Tell me just exactly why you insist on going to Lo-har with me; and if your reason is what I am beginning to suspect it is, I’ll tell you why I have not liked you.”
“That’s a bet,” exclaimed the man. “I want to go to Lo-har because—”
Two bison-men burst into the hut, cutting him short. “Come!” they commanded. “Now Kru is going to have you killed.”