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A Forest Battle







From: The Gods Of Mars

Tars Tarkas and I found no time for an exchange of experiences as we
stood there before the great boulder surrounded by the corpses of our
grotesque assailants, for from all directions down the broad valley was
streaming a perfect torrent of terrifying creatures in response to the
weird call of the strange figure far above us.

"Come," cried Tars Tarkas, "we must make for the cliffs. There lies
our only hope of even temporary escape; there we may find a cave or a
narrow ledge which two may defend for ever against this motley, unarmed
horde."

Together we raced across the scarlet sward, I timing my speed that I
might not outdistance my slower companion. We had, perhaps, three
hundred yards to cover between our boulder and the cliffs, and then to
search out a suitable shelter for our stand against the terrifying
things that were pursuing us.

They were rapidly overhauling us when Tars Tarkas cried to me to hasten
ahead and discover, if possible, the sanctuary we sought. The
suggestion was a good one, for thus many valuable minutes might be
saved to us, and, throwing every ounce of my earthly muscles into the
effort, I cleared the remaining distance between myself and the cliffs
in great leaps and bounds that put me at their base in a moment.

The cliffs rose perpendicular directly from the almost level sward of
the valley. There was no accumulation of fallen debris, forming a more
or less rough ascent to them, as is the case with nearly all other
cliffs I have ever seen. The scattered boulders that had fallen from
above and lay upon or partly buried in the turf, were the only
indication that any disintegration of the massive, towering pile of
rocks ever had taken place.

My first cursory inspection of the face of the cliffs filled my heart
with forebodings, since nowhere could I discern, except where the weird
herald stood still shrieking his shrill summons, the faintest
indication of even a bare foothold upon the lofty escarpment.

To my right the bottom of the cliff was lost in the dense foliage of
the forest, which terminated at its very foot, rearing its gorgeous
foliage fully a thousand feet against its stern and forbidding
neighbour.

To the left the cliff ran, apparently unbroken, across the head of the
broad valley, to be lost in the outlines of what appeared to be a range
of mighty mountains that skirted and confined the valley in every
direction.

Perhaps a thousand feet from me the river broke, as it seemed, directly
from the base of the cliffs, and as there seemed not the remotest
chance for escape in that direction I turned my attention again toward
the forest.

The cliffs towered above me a good five thousand feet. The sun was not
quite upon them and they loomed a dull yellow in their own shade. Here
and there they were broken with streaks and patches of dusky red,
green, and occasional areas of white quartz.

Altogether they were very beautiful, but I fear that I did not regard
them with a particularly appreciative eye on this, my first inspection
of them.

Just then I was absorbed in them only as a medium of escape, and so, as
my gaze ran quickly, time and again, over their vast expanse in search
of some cranny or crevice, I came suddenly to loathe them as the
prisoner must loathe the cruel and impregnable walls of his dungeon.

Tars Tarkas was approaching me rapidly, and still more rapidly came the
awful horde at his heels.

It seemed the forest now or nothing, and I was just on the point of
motioning Tars Tarkas to follow me in that direction when the sun
passed the cliff's zenith, and as the bright rays touched the dull
surface it burst out into a million scintillant lights of burnished
gold, of flaming red, of soft greens, and gleaming whites--a more
gorgeous and inspiring spectacle human eye has never rested upon.

The face of the entire cliff was, as later inspection conclusively
proved, so shot with veins and patches of solid gold as to quite
present the appearance of a solid wall of that precious metal except
where it was broken by outcroppings of ruby, emerald, and diamond
boulders--a faint and alluring indication of the vast and unguessable
riches which lay deeply buried behind the magnificent surface.

But what caught my most interested attention at the moment that the
sun's rays set the cliff's face a-shimmer, was the several black spots
which now appeared quite plainly in evidence high across the gorgeous
wall close to the forest's top, and extending apparently below and
behind the branches.

Almost immediately I recognised them for what they were, the dark
openings of caves entering the solid walls--possible avenues of escape
or temporary shelter, could we but reach them.

There was but a single way, and that led through the mighty, towering
trees upon our right. That I could scale them I knew full well, but
Tars Tarkas, with his mighty bulk and enormous weight, would find it a
task possibly quite beyond his prowess or his skill, for Martians are
at best but poor climbers. Upon the entire surface of that ancient
planet I never before had seen a hill or mountain that exceeded four
thousand feet in height above the dead sea bottoms, and as the ascent
was usually gradual, nearly to their summits they presented but few
opportunities for the practice of climbing. Nor would the Martians
have embraced even such opportunities as might present themselves, for
they could always find a circuitous route about the base of any
eminence, and these roads they preferred and followed in preference to
the shorter but more arduous ways.

However, there was nothing else to consider than an attempt to scale
the trees contiguous to the cliff in an effort to reach the caves above.

The Thark grasped the possibilities and the difficulties of the plan at
once, but there was no alternative, and so we set out rapidly for the
trees nearest the cliff.

Our relentless pursuers were now close to us, so close that it seemed
that it would be an utter impossibility for the Jeddak of Thark to
reach the forest in advance of them, nor was there any considerable
will in the efforts that Tars Tarkas made, for the green men of Barsoom
do not relish flight, nor ever before had I seen one fleeing from death
in whatsoever form it might have confronted him. But that Tars Tarkas
was the bravest of the brave he had proven thousands of times; yes,
tens of thousands in countless mortal combats with men and beasts. And
so I knew that there was another reason than fear of death behind his
flight, as he knew that a greater power than pride or honour spurred me
to escape these fierce destroyers. In my case it was love--love of the
divine Dejah Thoris; and the cause of the Thark's great and sudden love
of life I could not fathom, for it is oftener that they seek death than
life--these strange, cruel, loveless, unhappy people.

At length, however, we reached the shadows of the forest, while right
behind us sprang the swiftest of our pursuers--a giant plant man with
claws outreaching to fasten his bloodsucking mouths upon us.

He was, I should say, a hundred yards in advance of his closest
companion, and so I called to Tars Tarkas to ascend a great tree that
brushed the cliff's face while I dispatched the fellow, thus giving the
less agile Thark an opportunity to reach the higher branches before the
entire horde should be upon us and every vestige of escape cut off.

But I had reckoned without a just appreciation either of the cunning of
my immediate antagonist or the swiftness with which his fellows were
covering the distance which had separated them from me.

As I raised my long-sword to deal the creature its death thrust it
halted in its charge and, as my sword cut harmlessly through the empty
air, the great tail of the thing swept with the power of a grizzly's
arm across the sward and carried me bodily from my feet to the ground.
In an instant the brute was upon me, but ere it could fasten its
hideous mouths into my breast and throat I grasped a writhing tentacle
in either hand.

The plant man was well muscled, heavy, and powerful but my earthly
sinews and greater agility, in conjunction with the deathly strangle
hold I had upon him, would have given me, I think, an eventual victory
had we had time to discuss the merits of our relative prowess
uninterrupted. But as we strained and struggled about the tree into
which Tars Tarkas was clambering with infinite difficulty, I suddenly
caught a glimpse over the shoulder of my antagonist of the great swarm
of pursuers that now were fairly upon me.

Now, at last, I saw the nature of the other monsters who had come with
the plant men in response to the weird calling of the man upon the
cliff's face. They were that most dreaded of Martian creatures--great
white apes of Barsoom.

My former experiences upon Mars had familiarized me thoroughly with
them and their methods, and I may say that of all the fearsome and
terrible, weird and grotesque inhabitants of that strange world, it is
the white apes that come nearest to familiarizing me with the sensation
of fear.

I think that the cause of this feeling which these apes engender within
me is due to their remarkable resemblance in form to our Earth men,
which gives them a human appearance that is most uncanny when coupled
with their enormous size.

They stand fifteen feet in height and walk erect upon their hind feet.
Like the green Martians, they have an intermediary set of arms midway
between their upper and lower limbs. Their eyes are very close set,
but do not protrude as do those of the green men of Mars; their ears
are high set, but more laterally located than are the green men's,
while their snouts and teeth are much like those of our African
gorilla. Upon their heads grows an enormous shock of bristly hair.

It was into the eyes of such as these and the terrible plant men that I
gazed above the shoulder of my foe, and then, in a mighty wave of
snarling, snapping, screaming, purring rage, they swept over me--and of
all the sounds that assailed my ears as I went down beneath them, to me
the most hideous was the horrid purring of the plant men.

Instantly a score of cruel fangs and keen talons were sunk into my
flesh; cold, sucking lips fastened themselves upon my arteries. I
struggled to free myself, and even though weighed down by these immense
bodies, I succeeded in struggling to my feet, where, still grasping my
long-sword, and shortening my grip upon it until I could use it as a
dagger, I wrought such havoc among them that at one time I stood for an
instant free.

What it has taken minutes to write occurred in but a few seconds, but
during that time Tars Tarkas had seen my plight and had dropped from
the lower branches, which he had reached with such infinite labour, and
as I flung the last of my immediate antagonists from me the great Thark
leaped to my side, and again we fought, back to back, as we had done a
hundred times before.

Time and again the ferocious apes sprang in to close with us, and time
and again we beat them back with our swords. The great tails of the
plant men lashed with tremendous power about us as they charged from
various directions or sprang with the agility of greyhounds above our
heads; but every attack met a gleaming blade in sword hands that had
been reputed for twenty years the best that Mars ever had known; for
Tars Tarkas and John Carter were names that the fighting men of the
world of warriors loved best to speak.

But even the two best swords in a world of fighters can avail not for
ever against overwhelming numbers of fierce and savage brutes that know
not what defeat means until cold steel teaches their hearts no longer
to beat, and so, step by step, we were forced back. At length we stood
against the giant tree that we had chosen for our ascent, and then, as
charge after charge hurled its weight upon us, we gave back again and
again, until we had been forced half-way around the huge base of the
colossal trunk.

Tars Tarkas was in the lead, and suddenly I heard a little cry of
exultation from him.

"Here is shelter for one at least, John Carter," he said, and, glancing
down, I saw an opening in the base of the tree about three feet in
diameter.

"In with you, Tars Tarkas," I cried, but he would not go; saying that
his bulk was too great for the little aperture, while I might slip in
easily.

"We shall both die if we remain without, John Carter; here is a slight
chance for one of us. Take it and you may live to avenge me, it is
useless for me to attempt to worm my way into so small an opening with
this horde of demons besetting us on all sides."

"Then we shall die together, Tars Tarkas," I replied, "for I shall not
go first. Let me defend the opening while you get in, then my smaller
stature will permit me to slip in with you before they can prevent."

We still were fighting furiously as we talked in broken sentences,
punctured with vicious cuts and thrusts at our swarming enemy.

At length he yielded, for it seemed the only way in which either of us
might be saved from the ever-increasing numbers of our assailants, who
were still swarming upon us from all directions across the broad valley.

"It was ever your way, John Carter, to think last of your own life," he
said; "but still more your way to command the lives and actions of
others, even to the greatest of Jeddaks who rule upon Barsoom."

There was a grim smile upon his cruel, hard face, as he, the greatest
Jeddak of them all, turned to obey the dictates of a creature of
another world--of a man whose stature was less than half his own.

"If you fail, John Carter," he said, "know that the cruel and heartless
Thark, to whom you taught the meaning of friendship, will come out to
die beside you."

"As you will, my friend," I replied; "but quickly now, head first,
while I cover your retreat."

He hesitated a little at that word, for never before in his whole life
of continual strife had he turned his back upon aught than a dead or
defeated enemy.

"Haste, Tars Tarkas," I urged, "or we shall both go down to profitless
defeat; I cannot hold them for ever alone."

As he dropped to the ground to force his way into the tree, the whole
howling pack of hideous devils hurled themselves upon me. To right and
left flew my shimmering blade, now green with the sticky juice of a
plant man, now red with the crimson blood of a great white ape; but
always flying from one opponent to another, hesitating but the barest
fraction of a second to drink the lifeblood in the centre of some
savage heart.

And thus I fought as I never had fought before, against such frightful
odds that I cannot realize even now that human muscles could have
withstood that awful onslaught, that terrific weight of hurtling tons
of ferocious, battling flesh.

With the fear that we would escape them, the creatures redoubled their
efforts to pull me down, and though the ground about me was piled high
with their dead and dying comrades, they succeeded at last in
overwhelming me, and I went down beneath them for the second time that
day, and once again felt those awful sucking lips against my flesh.

But scarce had I fallen ere I felt powerful hands grip my ankles, and
in another second I was being drawn within the shelter of the tree's
interior. For a moment it was a tug of war between Tars Tarkas and a
great plant man, who clung tenaciously to my breast, but presently I
got the point of my long-sword beneath him and with a mighty thrust
pierced his vitals.

Torn and bleeding from many cruel wounds, I lay panting upon the ground
within the hollow of the tree, while Tars Tarkas defended the opening
from the furious mob without.

For an hour they howled about the tree, but after a few attempts to
reach us they confined their efforts to terrorizing shrieks and
screams, to horrid growling on the part of the great white apes, and
the fearsome and indescribable purring by the plant men.

At length, all but a score, who had apparently been left to prevent our
escape, had left us, and our adventure seemed destined to result in a
siege, the only outcome of which could be our death by starvation; for
even should we be able to slip out after dark, whither in this unknown
and hostile valley could we hope to turn our steps toward possible
escape?

As the attacks of our enemies ceased and our eyes became accustomed to
the semi-darkness of the interior of our strange retreat, I took the
opportunity to explore our shelter.

The tree was hollow to an extent of about fifty feet in diameter, and
from its flat, hard floor I judged that it had often been used to
domicile others before our occupancy. As I raised my eyes toward its
roof to note the height I saw far above me a faint glow of light.

There was an opening above. If we could but reach it we might still
hope to make the shelter of the cliff caves. My eyes had now become
quite used to the subdued light of the interior, and as I pursued my
investigation I presently came upon a rough ladder at the far side of
the cave.

Quickly I mounted it, only to find that it connected at the top with
the lower of a series of horizontal wooden bars that spanned the now
narrow and shaft-like interior of the tree's stem. These bars were set
one above another about three feet apart, and formed a perfect ladder
as far above me as I could see.

Dropping to the floor once more, I detailed my discovery to Tars
Tarkas, who suggested that I explore aloft as far as I could go in
safety while he guarded the entrance against a possible attack.

As I hastened above to explore the strange shaft I found that the
ladder of horizontal bars mounted always as far above me as my eyes
could reach, and as I ascended, the light from above grew brighter and
brighter.

For fully five hundred feet I continued to climb, until at length I
reached the opening in the stem which admitted the light. It was of
about the same diameter as the entrance at the foot of the tree, and
opened directly upon a large flat limb, the well worn surface of which
testified to its long continued use as an avenue for some creature to
and from this remarkable shaft.

I did not venture out upon the limb for fear that I might be discovered
and our retreat in this direction cut off; but instead hurried to
retrace my steps to Tars Tarkas.

I soon reached him and presently we were both ascending the long ladder
toward the opening above.

Tars Tarkas went in advance and as I reached the first of the
horizontal bars I drew the ladder up after me and, handing it to him,
he carried it a hundred feet further aloft, where he wedged it safely
between one of the bars and the side of the shaft. In like manner I
dislodged the lower bars as I passed them, so that we soon had the
interior of the tree denuded of all possible means of ascent for a
distance of a hundred feet from the base; thus precluding possible
pursuit and attack from the rear.

As we were to learn later, this precaution saved us from dire
predicament, and was eventually the means of our salvation.

When we reached the opening at the top Tars Tarkas drew to one side
that I might pass out and investigate, as, owing to my lesser weight
and greater agility, I was better fitted for the perilous threading of
this dizzy, hanging pathway.

The limb upon which I found myself ascended at a slight angle toward
the cliff, and as I followed it I found that it terminated a few feet
above a narrow ledge which protruded from the cliff's face at the
entrance to a narrow cave.

As I approached the slightly more slender extremity of the branch it
bent beneath my weight until, as I balanced perilously upon its outer
tip, it swayed gently on a level with the ledge at a distance of a
couple of feet.

Five hundred feet below me lay the vivid scarlet carpet of the valley;
nearly five thousand feet above towered the mighty, gleaming face of
the gorgeous cliffs.

The cave that I faced was not one of those that I had seen from the
ground, and which lay much higher, possibly a thousand feet. But so
far as I might know it was as good for our purpose as another, and so I
returned to the tree for Tars Tarkas.

Together we wormed our way along the waving pathway, but when we
reached the end of the branch we found that our combined weight so
depressed the limb that the cave's mouth was now too far above us to be
reached.

We finally agreed that Tars Tarkas should return along the branch,
leaving his longest leather harness strap with me, and that when the
limb had risen to a height that would permit me to enter the cave I was
to do so, and on Tars Tarkas' return I could then lower the strap and
haul him up to the safety of the ledge.

This we did without mishap and soon found ourselves together upon the
verge of a dizzy little balcony, with a magnificent view of the valley
spreading out below us.

As far as the eye could reach gorgeous forest and crimson sward skirted
a silent sea, and about all towered the brilliant monster guardian
cliffs. Once we thought we discerned a gilded minaret gleaming in the
sun amidst the waving tops of far-distant trees, but we soon abandoned
the idea in the belief that it was but an hallucination born of our
great desire to discover the haunts of civilized men in this beautiful,
yet forbidding, spot.

Below us upon the river's bank the great white apes were devouring the
last remnants of Tars Tarkas' former companions, while great herds of
plant men grazed in ever-widening circles about the sward which they
kept as close clipped as the smoothest of lawns.

Knowing that attack from the tree was now improbable, we determined to
explore the cave, which we had every reason to believe was but a
continuation of the path we had already traversed, leading the gods
alone knew where, but quite evidently away from this valley of grim
ferocity.

As we advanced we found a well-proportioned tunnel cut from the solid
cliff. Its walls rose some twenty feet above the floor, which was
about five feet in width. The roof was arched. We had no means of
making a light, and so groped our way slowly into the ever-increasing
darkness, Tars Tarkas keeping in touch with one wall while I felt along
the other, while, to prevent our wandering into diverging branches and
becoming separated or lost in some intricate and labyrinthine maze, we
clasped hands.

How far we traversed the tunnel in this manner I do not know, but
presently we came to an obstruction which blocked our further progress.
It seemed more like a partition than a sudden ending of the cave, for
it was constructed not of the material of the cliff, but of something
which felt like very hard wood.

Silently I groped over its surface with my hands, and presently was
rewarded by the feel of the button which as commonly denotes a door on
Mars as does a door knob on Earth.

Gently pressing it, I had the satisfaction of feeling the door slowly
give before me, and in another instant we were looking into a dimly
lighted apartment, which, so far as we could see, was unoccupied.

Without more ado I swung the door wide open and, followed by the huge
Thark, stepped into the chamber. As we stood for a moment in silence
gazing about the room a slight noise behind caused me to turn quickly,
when, to my astonishment, I saw the door close with a sharp click as
though by an unseen hand.

Instantly I sprang toward it to wrench it open again, for something in
the uncanny movement of the thing and the tense and almost palpable
silence of the chamber seemed to portend a lurking evil lying hidden in
this rock-bound chamber within the bowels of the Golden Cliffs.

My fingers clawed futilely at the unyielding portal, while my eyes
sought in vain for a duplicate of the button which had given us ingress.

And then, from unseen lips, a cruel and mocking peal of laughter rang
through the desolate place.





Next: The Chamber Of Mystery

Previous: The Plant Men



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