Back to the Stone Age
by
Edgar Rice Burroughs

I – LIVING DEATH

THE ETERNAL noonday sun of Pellucidar looked down upon such a scene as the outer crust of earth may not have witnessed for countless ages past, such a scene as only the inner world of the earth's core may produce today.

Hundreds of saber-toothed tigers were driving countless herbivorous animals into a clearing in a giant forest; and two white men from the outer crust were there to see, two white men and a handful of black warriors from far distant Africa .

The men had come in a giant dirigible with others of their kind through the north polar opening at the top of the world at the urgent behest of Jason Gridley, but that is a story that has been once told.

This is the story of the one who was lost.

"It doesn't seem possible," exclaimed Gridley, "that five hundred miles below our feet automobiles are dashing through crowded streets lined by enormous buildings; that there the telegraph, the telephone, and the radio are so commonplace as to excite no comment; that countless thousands live out their entire lives without ever having to use a weapon in self-defense, and yet at the same instant we stand here facing saber-toothed tigers in surroundings that may not have existed upon the outer crust since a million years."

"Look at them!" exclaimed von Horst. "Look at what they've driven into this clearing already, and more corning."

There were great ox-like creatures with shaggy coats and wide-spreading horns. There were red deer and sloths of gigantic size. There were mastadons and mammoths, and a huge, elephantine creature that resembled an elephant and yet did not seem to be an elephant at all. Its great head was four feet long and three feet broad. It had a short, powerful trunk and from its lower jaw mighty tusks curved downward, their points bending inward toward the body. At the shoulder it stood at least ten feet above the ground, and in length it must have been fully twenty feet. But what resemblance it bore to an elephant was lessened by its small, pig-like ears.

The two white men, momentarily forgetting the tigers behind them in their amazement at the sight ahead, halted and looked with wonder upon the huge gathering of creatures within the clearing. But it soon became apparent that if they were to escape with their lives they must reach the safety of the trees before they were either dragged down by the saber-tooths or trampled to death by the frightened herbivores which were already milling around looking for an avenue of escape.

"There is still one opening ahead of us, bwana," said Muviro, the black chief of the Waziri.

"We shall have to run for it," said Gridley. "The beasts are all headed in our direction now. Give them a volley, and then beat it for the trees. If they charge, it will be every man for himself."

The volley turned them back for an instant; but when they saw the great cats behind them, they wheeled about once more in the direction of the men.

"Here they come!" cried von Horst. Then the men broke into a run as they sought to reach the trees that offered the only sanctuary.

Gridley was bowled over by a huge sloth; then he scrambled to his feet just in time to leap from the path of a fleeing mastodon and reach a tree just as the main body of the stampeding herd closed about it. A moment later, temporarily safe among the branches, he looked about for his companions; but none was in sight, nor could any living thing so puny as man have remained alive beneath that solid mass of leaping, plunging, terrified beasts. Some of his fellows, he felt sure, might have reached the forest in safety; but he feared for von Horst, who had been some little distance in rear of the Waziri. But Lieutenant Wilhelm von Horst had escaped. In fact, he had succeeded in running some little distance into the forest without having to take to the trees. He had borne off to the right, away from the escaping animals, which had veered to the left after they entered the forest. He could hear them thundering away in the distance, squealing and trumpeting, grunting and bellowing.

Winded and almost exhausted, he sat down at the foot of a tree to catch his breath and rest. He was very tired, and just for a moment he closed his eyes. The sun was directly overhead. When he opened his eyes again the sun was still directly overhead. He realized that he had dozed, but he thought that it had been for but an instant. He did not know that he had slept for a long time. How long, who may say? For how may time be measured in this timeless world whose stationary sun hangs eternally motionless at zenith?

The forest was strangely silent. No longer did he hear the trumpeting and squealing of the herbivores or the growls and snarls of the cats. He called aloud to attract the attention of his friends, but there was no response; then he set out in search of them, taking what he thought was a direct route back toward the main camp where the dirigible was moored and toward which he knew they would be sure to go. But instead of going north, as he should have done, he went west.

Perhaps it was just as well that he did, for presently he heard voices.

He stopped and listened. Men were approaching. He heard them distinctly, but he could not recognize their language. They might be friendly; but, in this savage world, he doubted it. He stepped from the trail he had been following and concealed himself behind a clump of bushes, and a moment later the men that he had heard came into view. They were Muviro and his warriors. They were speaking the dialect of their own African tribe. At sight of them von Horst stepped into the trail. They were as glad to see him as he was to see them. Now if they could but find Gridley they would be happy; but they did not find him, though they searched for a long time.

Muviro knew no better than von Horst where they were or the direction of camp; and he and his warriors were much chagrined to think that they, the Waziri, could be lost in any forest. As they compared notes it seemed evident that each had made a large circle in opposite directions after they had separated. Only thus could they account for their coming together face to face as they had, since each insisted that he had not at any time retraced his steps.

The Waziri had not slept, and they were very tired. Von Horst, on the contrary had slept and was rested; so, when they found a cave that would give them all shelter, the Waziri went in where it was dark and slept while von Horst sat on the ground at the mouth of the cave and tried to plan for the future. As he sat there quietly a large boar passed; and, knowing that they would require meat, the man rose and stalked it. It had disappeared around a curve in the trail; but though he thought that he was close behind it he never seemed to be able to catch sight of it again, and there was such a patchwork of trails crossing and crisscrossing that he was soon confused and started back toward the cave.

He had walked a considerable distance before he realized that he was lost. He called Muviro's name aloud, but there was no response; then he stopped and tried very carefully to figure out in what direction the cave must be. He looked up at the sun mechanically, as though it might help him. It hung at zenith. How could he plot a course where there were no stars but only a sun that hung perpetually straight above one's head? He swore under his breath and set out again. He could only do his best.

For what seemed a very long time he plodded on, but it was still noon. Often, mechanically, he glanced up at the sun, the sun that gave him no bearings nor any hint of the lapse of time, until he came to hate the shining orb that seemed to mock him. The forest and the jungle teemed with life. Fruits and flowers and nuts grew in profusion. He never need lack for a variety of food if he but knew which he might safely eat and which he might not. He was very hungry and thirsty, and it was the latter that worried him most. He had a pistol and plenty of ammunition. In this lush game country he could always provide himself with meat, but he must have water. He pushed on. It was water that he was looking for now more than for his companions or for camp. He commenced to suffer from thirst, and he became very tired again and sleepy. He shot a large rodent and drank its blood; then he made a fire and cooked the carcass. It was only half cooked beneath the surface which was charred in places. Lieutenant Wilhelm von Horst was a man accustomed to excellent food properly prepared and served, but he tore at the carcass of his unsavory kill like a famished wolf and thought that no meal had ever tasted more delicious. He did not know how long he had been without food. Now he slept again, this time in a tree; for he had caught a glimpse of a great beast through the foliage of the jungle, a beast with enormous fangs and blazing eyes.

Again, when he awoke, he did not know how long he had slept; but the fact that he was entirely rested suggested that it had been a long time. He felt that it was entirely possible in a world where there was no time that a man might sleep a day or a week. How was one to know? The thought intrigued him. He commenced to wonder how long he had been away from the dirigible. Only the fact that he had not quenched his thirst since he had been separated from his comrades suggested that it could not have been but a day or two, though now he was actually suffering for water. It was all that he could think of. He started off in search of it. He must have water! If he didn't he would die—die here alone in this terrible forest, his last resting place forever unknown to any human being. Von Horst was a social animal; and, as such, this idea was repugnant to him. He was not afraid to die; but this seemed such an entirely futile end—and he was very young, still in his twenties.

He was following a game trail. There were many of them; they crossed and crisscrossed all through the forest. Some of them must lead to water; but which ones? He had chosen the one he was following because it was broader and more plainly marked than the others. Many beasts had passed along it and, perhaps, for an incalculable time, for it was worn deep; and von Horst reasoned that more animals would follow a trail that led to water than would follow any other trail. He was right. When he came to a little river, he gave a cry of delight and ran to it and threw himself face down upon the bank. He drank in great gulps. Perhaps it should have harmed him, but it did not. It was a clean little river that ran among boulders over a gravelly bottom, a gem of a river that carried on its bosom to the forest and the lowlands the freshness and the coolness and the beauty of the mountains that gave it birth. Von Horst buried his face in the water, he let it purl over his bare arms, he cupped his hands and dipped it up and poured it over his head, he revelled in it. He felt that he had never known a luxury so rare, so desirable. His troubles vanished. Everything would be all right now—he had water! Now he was safe!

He looked up. Upon the opposite bank of the little river squatted such a creature as was never in any book, the bones of which were never in any museum. It resembled a gigantic winged kangaroo with the head of a reptile, pterodactyl-like in its long, heavily fanged jaws. It was watching von Horst intently, its cold, reptilian, lidless eyes staring at him expressionlessly. There was something terribly menacing in its fixed gaze. The man started to rise slowly; then the hideous thing came to sudden life. With a hissing scream it cleared the little river in a single mighty bound. Von Horst turned to run, meanwhile tugging at the pistol in his holster; but before he could draw it, before he could escape, the thing pounced upon him and bore him to earth; then it picked him up in claw-like hands and held him out and surveyed him. Sitting erect upon its broad tail it towered fifteen feet in height, and at close range its jaws seemed almost large enough to engulf the puny man-thing that gazed in awe upon them. Von Horst thought that his end had come. He was helpless in the powerful grip of those mighty talons, beneath one of which his pistol hand was pinned to his side. The creature seemed to be gloating over him, debating, apparently, where to take the first bite; or at least so it seemed to von Horst.

At the point where the stream crossed the trail there was an opening in the leafy canopy of the forest, through which the eternal noonday sun cast its brilliant rays upon the rippling water, the green sward, the monstrous creature, and its relatively puny captive. The reptile, if such it were, turned its cold eyes upward toward the opening; then it leaped high into the air, and as it did so it spread its wings and flapped dismally upward.

Von Horst was cold with apprehension. He recalled stories he had read of some great bird of the outer crust that carried its prey aloft and then killed it by letting it fall to the ground. He wondered if this were to be his fate, and he thanked his Maker that there would be so few to mourn him—no wife nor children to be left without protector and provider, no sweetheart to mourn his loss, pining for the lover who would never return.

They were above the forest now. The strange, horizon-less landscape stretched away in all directions, fading gradually into nothingness as it passed from the range of human vision. Beyond the forest, in the direction of the creature's flight, lay open country, rolling hills, and mountains. Von Horst could see rivers and lakes and, in the far, hazy distance, what appeared to be a great body of water—an inland sea, perhaps, or a vast, uncharted ocean; but in whatever direction he might look lay mystery.

His situation was not one that rendered the contemplation of scenery a factor of vital interest, but presently whatever interest he had in it was definitely wiped out. The thing that carried him suddenly relinquished its hold with one paw. Von Horst thought that it was going to drop him, that the end had come. He breathed a little prayer. The creature raised him a few feet and then lowered him into a dark, odorous pocket which it held open with its other paw. When it released its hold upon him, von Horst was in utter darkness. For an instant he was at a loss to explain his situation; then it dawned upon him that he was in the belly pouch of a marsupial. It was hot and stifling. He thought he would suffocate, and the reptilian stench was almost overpowering. When he could endure it no longer he pushed himself upward until his head protruded from the mouth of the pouch.

The creature was flying horizontally by now, and the man's view was restricted to what lay almost directly beneath. They were still over the forest. The foliage, lying like billowed clouds of emerald, looked soft and inviting. Von Horst wondered why he was being carried away alive and whither. Doubtless to some nest or lair to serve as food, perhaps for a brood of hideous young. He fingered his pistol. How easy it would be to fire into that hot, pulsing body; but what would it profit him? It would mean almost certain death—possibly a lingering death if he were not instantly killed, for the only alternative to that would be fatal injuries. He abandoned the thought.