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Mastodon And Will-o'-the Wisps






Part of: LAST OF EARTH
From: A Journey In Other Worlds

Bearwarden's bullet struck the mammoth in the shoulder, while
Ayrault's aim was farther back. As the balls exploded, a
half-barrelful of flesh and hide was shot from each, leaving two
gaping holes. Instantly he rushed among the trees, making his
course known for some time by his roars. As he turned,
Bearwarden fired again, but the hall flew over him, blowing off
the top of a tree.

"Now for the chase!" said Ayrault. "There would be no excuse for
losing him."

Quickly pushing their raft to shore and securing it to the bank,
the three jumped off. Thanks to their rubber boots and galvanic
outfits which automatically kept them charged, they were as spry
as they would have been on earth. The ground all about them, and
in a strip twelve feet wide where the mammoth had gone, was torn
up, and the vegetation trodden down. Following this trail, they
struck back into the woods, where in places the gloom cast by the
thick foliage was so dense that there was a mere twilight,
startling as they went numbers of birds of grey and sombre
plumage, whose necks and heads, and the sounds they uttered, were
so reptilian that the three terrestrials believed they must also
possess poison fangs.

"The most highly developed things we have seen here," said
Bearwarden, "are the flowers and fireflies, most of the birds and
amphibians being simply loathsome."

As they proceeded they found tracks of blood, which were rapidly
attracting swarms of the reptile birds and snakes, which,
however, as a rule, fled at their approach.

"I wonder what can have caused that mammoth to move so fast, and
to have seemed so ill at ease?" said the doctor. "His motive
certainly was not thirst, for he did not approach the water in a
direct line, neither did he drink on reaching it. One would
think nothing short of an earthquake or a land-slide could
trouble him."

"There can be no land-slide here," said Ayrault, for the country
is too flat."

"And after yesterday's eruptions," added Bearwarden, "it would
seem as though the volcanoes could have scarcely enough steam
left to make trouble."

The blood-tracks, continuing to become fresher, showed them they
were nearing the game, when suddenly the trail took a sharp turn
to the right, even returning towards the lake. A little farther
it took another sharp turn, then followed a series of doublings,
while still farther the ground was completely denuded of trees,
its torn-up and trampled condition and the enormous amount of
still warm blood showing how terrific a battle had just taken
place.

While they looked about they saw what appeared to be the trunk of
a tree about four feet in diameter and six feet long, with a
slight crook. On coming closer, they recognized in it one of the
forefeet of the mammoth, cut as cleanly as though with a knife
from the leg just above the ankle, and still warm. A little
farther they found the huge trunk cut to slivers, and, just
beyond, the body of the unfortunate beast with three of its feet
gone, and the thick hide cut and slashed like so much paper. It
still breathed, and Ayrault, who had a tender heart, sent an
explosive ball into its skull, which ended its suffering.

The three hunters then surveyed the scene. The largest and most
powerful beast they had believed could exist lay before them
dead, not from the bite of a snake or any other poison, but from
mechanical injuries of which those they had inflicted formed but
a very small part, and literally cut to pieces.

"I am curious to see the animal," said Cortlandt, "capable of
doing this, though nothing short of dynamite bombs would protect
us from him."

"As he has not stopped to eat his victim," said Bearwarden, "it
is fair to suppose he is not carnivorous, and so must have had
some other motive than hunger in making the attack; unless we can
suppose that our approach frightened him away, which, with such
power as he must possess, seems unlikely. Let us see," he
continued, "parts of two legs remain unaccounted for. Perhaps,
on account of their shape, he has been able the more easily to
carry or roll them off, for we know that elephant foot makes a
capital dish."

"From the way you talk," said Cortlandt, "one would suppose you
attributed this to men. The Goliath we picture to ourselves
would be a child compared to the man that could cut through these
legs, though the necessity of believing him to have merely great
size does not disprove his existence here. I think it probable
we shall find this is the work of some animal with incisors of
such power as it is difficult for us to conceive of."

"There is no indication here of teeth," said Bearwarden, "each
foot being taken off with a clean cut. Besides, we are coming to
believe that man existed on earth during the greater part, if not
the whole, of our Carboniferous period."

"We must reserve our decision pending further evidence," said
Cortlandt.

"I vote we take the heart," said Ayrault, "and cook it, since
otherwise the mammoth will be devoured before our eyes."

While Bearwarden and Ayrault delved for this, Cortlandt, with
some difficulty, parted the mammoth's lips and examined the
teeth. "From the conical projections on the molars," said he,
"this should be classed rather as a mastodon than as a mammoth."

When the huge heart was secured, Bearwarden arranged slices on
sharpened sticks, while Ayrault set about starting a fire. He
had to use Cortlandt's gun to clear the dry wood of snakes,
which, attracted doubtless by the dead mastodon, came in such
numbers that they covered the ground, while huge pterodactyls,
more venomous-looking than the reptiles, hovered about the
opening above.

Arranging a double line of electric wires in a circle about the
mastodon and themselves, they sat down and did justice to the
meal, with appetites that might have dismayed the waiting throng.
Whenever a snake's head came in contact with one wire, while his
tail touched the other, he gave a spasmodic leap and fell back
dead. If he happened to fall across the wires, lie immediately
began to sizzle, a cloud of smoke arose, and lie was reduced to
ashes.

"Any time that we are short of mastodon or other good game," said
Ayrault, "we need not hunger if we are not above grilled snake."

All laughed at this, and Bearwarden, drawing a whiskey-flask from
his pocket, passed it to his friends.

"When we rig our fishing-tackle," he continued, "and have fresh
fish for dinner, an entree of rattlesnake, roast mastodon for the
piece de resistance, and begin the whole with turtle soup and
clams, of which there must be plenty on the ocean beach, we shall
want to stay here the rest of our lives."

"I suspect we shall have to," replied Ayrault "for we shall
become so like Thanksgiving turkeys that the Callisto's door will
be too small for us."

While they sat and talked, the flowers and plants about them
softly began their song, and, as a visual accompaniment, the
fire-flies they had not before noticed twinkled through the
forest.

"My goodness! " exclaimed Cortlandt, "how time goes here! We
started to get breakfast, and now it's growing dark."

Hastily cutting some thick but tender slices from the mastodon,
and impaling them with the remains of the heart on a sharpened
stake, they took up the wires, and the battery that had been
supplying the current, and retraced their steps by the way they
had come. Their rubber-lined cowhide boots protected them from
all but the largest snakes, and as these were for the most part
already enjoying their gorge, they trampled with impunity on
those that remained in their path. When they had covered about
half the distance to the raft, a huge boa-constrictor, which they
had mistaken for a branch, fell upon Cortlandt, pinioning his
arms and bearing him to the ground. Dropping their loads,
Bearwarden and Ayrault threw themselves upon the monster with
their hunting-knives with such vim that in a few seconds it beat
a hasty retreat, leaving, as it did so, a wake of phosphorescent
light.

"Are you hurt?" asked Bearwarden, helping him up.

"Not in the least," replied Cortlandt. "What surprises me is
that I am not. The weight of that boa-constrictor would be very
great on earth, and here I should think it would be simply
crushing."

Groping their way through the rapidly growing darkness, they
reached the raft without further adventure, and, once on the
lake, had plenty of light. Two moons, one at three quarters and
the other full, shone brightly, while the water was alive with
gymnotuses and other luminous creatures. Sitting and living upon
the cross-timbers, they looked up at the sky. The Great Bear and
the north star had exactly the same relation to each other as
when seen from the earth, while the other constellations and the
Milky Way looked identically as when they had so often gazed at
them before, and some idea of the immensity of space was conveyed
to them. Here was no change; though they had travelled three
hundred and eighty million miles, there was no more perceptible
difference than if they had not moved a foot. Perhaps, they
thought, to the telescopes--if there are any--among the stars,
the sun was seen to be accompanied by two small, dark companions,
for Jupiter and Saturn might be visible, or perhaps it seemed
merely as a slightly variable star, in years when sun-spots were
numerous, or as the larger planets in their revolutions
occasionally intercepted a part of its light. As they floated

along they noticed a number of what they took to be
Will-o'-the-wisps. Several of these great globules of pale flame
hovered about them in the air, near the surface of the water, and
anon they rose till they hung above the trees, apparently having
no forward or horizontal motion except when taken by the gentle
breeze, merely sinking and rising.

"How pretty they are!" said Cortlandt, as they watched them.
"For bodies consisting of marsh gas, they hold together
wonderfully."

Presently one alighted on the water near them. It was
considerably brighter than any glow-worm, and somewhat larger
than an arc lamp, being nearly three feet in diameter; it did not
emit much light, but would itself have been visible from a
considerable distance. Cortlandt tried to touch it with a
raft-pole, but could not reach far enough. Presently a large
fish approached it, swimming near the surface of the water. When
it was close to the Jack-o'-lantern, or whatever it was, there
was a splash, the fish turned up its white under side, and, the
breeze being away from the raft, the fire-ball and its victim
slowly floated off together. There were frequently a dozen of
these great globules in sight at once, rising and descending, the
observers noticing one peculiarity, viz., that their brightness
increased as they rose, and decreased as they sank.

About two and a half hours after sunset, or midnight according to
Jupiter time, they fell asleep, but about an hour later Cortlandt
was awakened by a weight on his chest. Starting up, he perceived
a huge white-faced bat, with its head but a few inches from his.
Its outstretched wings were about eight feet across, and it
fastened its sharp claws upon him. Seizing it by the throat, he
struggled violently. His companions, awakened by the noise,
quickly came to his rescue, grasping him just as he was in danger
of being dragged off the raft, and in another moment Bearwarden's
knife had entered the creature's spine.

"This evidently belongs to the blood-sucking species," said
Cortlandt. "I seem to be the target for all these beasts, and
henceforth shall keep my eyes open at night."

As day would break in but little over an hour, they decided to
remain awake, and they pushed the dead bat overboard, where it
was soon devoured by fishes. A chill had come upon the air, and
the incessant noise of the forms of life about them had in a
measure ceased.

Cortlandt passed around a box of quinine as a preventive against
malaria, and again they lay back and looked at the stars. The
most splendid sight in their sky now was Saturn. At the
comparatively short distance this great planet was from them, it
cast a distinct shadow, its vast rings making it appear twice its
real size. With the first glimmer of dawn, the fire-balls
descended to the surface of the water and disappeared within it,
their lights going out. With a suddenness to which the explorers
were becoming accustomed, the sun burst upon them, rising as
perpendicularly as at the earth's equator, and more than twice as
fast, having first tinged the sky with the most brilliant hues.

The stream had left the forest and swamp, and was now flowing
through open country between high banks. Pushing the raft
ashore, they stepped off on the sand, and, warming up the remains
of the mastodon's heart, ate a substantial breakfast.

While washing their knives in the stream preparatory to leaving
it--for they wished to return to the Callisto by completing the
circle they had begun--they noticed a huge flat jelly-fish in
shallow water. It was so transparent that they could see the
sandy bottom through it. As it seemed to be asleep, Bearwarden
stirred up the water around it and poked it with a stick. The
jelly- fish first drew itself together till it touched the
surface of the water, being nearly round, then it slowly left the
stream and rose till it was wholly in the air, and,
notwithstanding the sunlight, it emitted a faint glow.

"Ah!" exclaimed Bearwarden, "here we have one of our
Jack-o'-lanterns. Let us see what it is going to do."

"It is incomprehensible to me," said Cortlandt, "how it maintains
itself; for it has neither wings nor visible means of support,
yet, as it was able to immerse itself in the stream, thereby
displacing a volume of liquid equivalent to its bulk, it must be
at least as heavy as water."

The jelly-fish remained poised in the air until directly above
them, when it began to descend.

"Stand from under!" cried Bearwarden, stepping back. "I, for one,
should not care to be touched."

The great soft mass came directly over the spot on which they had
been standing, and stopped its descent about three feet from the
ground, parallel to which it was slowly carried by the wind. A
few yards off, in the direction in which it was moving, lay a
long black snake asleep on the sand. When directly over its
victim the jelly globule again sank till it touched the middle of
the reptile's back. The serpent immediately coiled itself in a
knot, but was already dead. The jellyfish did not swallow, but
completely surrounded its prey, and again rose in the air, with
the snake's black body clearly visible within it.

"Our Will-o'-the-wisp is prettier by night than by day," said
Bearwarden. "I suggest that we investigate this further."

"How?" asked Cortlandt.

"By destroying its life," replied Bearwarden. "Give it one
barrel from your gun, doctor, and see if it can then defy
gravitation."

Accordingly Cortlandt took careful aim at the object, about
twenty-yards away, and fired. The main portion of the jellyfish,
with the snake still in its embrace, sailed away, but many pounds
of jelly fell to the ground. Most of this remained where it had
fallen, but a few of the larger pieces showed a faint luminosity
and rose again.

"You cannot kill that which is simply a mass of protoplasm," said
Cortlandt. "Doubtless each of those pieces will form a new
organism. This proves that there are ramifications and
developments of life which we never dreamed of."





Next: An Unseen Hunter

Previous: Exploration And Excitement



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