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The Armies Of Mars






Part of: Other World Life
From: Pharaoh's Broker

As the two returning birds passed the marching soldiers, their riders
evidently delivered some message to the captains, for the soldiers
suddenly broke forward in a run, using their long cross-bows with great
dexterity as jumping staves. Placing the outer end upon the ground ahead
of them as they ran, they leaped and hung upon the cross-piece with
their hands. The springy resistance of this tough wood imparted to them
a forward motion with its rebound, and they scaled great distances at
each jump. The whole company did it in concert, and they made almost as
great speed as if they had been riding bicycles. The slingers were
consequently left far in the rear.

Less than half way up the incline the archers stopped, arranged their
bow-thongs, and selected feathered arrows from a pouch slung over their
shoulders.

"They can never hit us from that distance!" I exclaimed; "a rifle would
not carry so far."

"You forget the weak gravity which will bend their course down very
little, and the thin air which will barely resist their flight; this is
a model planet for archery," he answered. "Quick! drop behind your
shield! They have fired the first volley!"

A torrent of the shafts fell all about us, and many pelted against our
shields. Those which struck the soft earth of the bank sank into it and
stuck there, but those which struck our steel were shivered and broken.

"Sit still and let them shoot away their arrows," I whispered. "This
will soon be over."

The next volley came with a little more force, as if they had marched
further up the hill. One or two arrows fell very near me, and I reached
for them to examine their construction. They were made of the hollow,
filmy stock of a rather tough reed, and were pointed with a chipped
stone tip, which was brittle, but not harder than porous chalk.

"That stuff wouldn't pierce my two coats, to say nothing of the linked
steel shirt," I sneered. "I will show them what fools they are!" and I
walked boldly out to the brink and faced them. They let fly a quick
volley with a concerted shout. As I saw the arrows start, I turned my
back and bent down my head quickly. Perhaps a dozen of the slim reeds
pelted me, and then I stooped over and gathered up as many as I could
find, and broke them all in my hands before their eyes.

This sent a hum of excited jabbering through their ranks, and they fired
no more. I stood watching them, and presently I grasped my two hands
together and shook hands with myself, to try to convey to them the idea
that we were friendly; but it must have carried no meaning to them. By
this time the slingers had come up, and I retired behind my shield to
await their action. The archers seemed very glad of their arrival, and
yielded the foremost place to them. I noted their operations carefully,
and saw them place something, which did not look like a round stone, in
the pocket of their slings, and then they whirled it long and
cautiously. Suddenly they discharged it with a swift movement of their
bodies backward, which landed them on one knee.

"Wide of the mark!" I cried, as the missiles sailed off far to the right
of us. But just before landing they bent a sharp, surprising curve, and
lacked but little of hitting us behind the shields! The things they had
thrown were the thin, concave shells of a large nut, and the trick of
discharging them gave them their peculiar flight.

"I don't like this throwing around the corner!" exclaimed the doctor.
"With a little truer aim they will be able to hit us behind anything."

"Hurry, bring your shield over behind mine, and face it the other way,"
said I; "then we will crouch between the two in safety."

He did this just in time, for some of the next volley actually curved
around and hit his shield, but none struck mine in front. However, the
shells which fell near us were of light weight, and would not have
bruised us much with heavy clothing on. Presently their pelting ceased,
and we concluded that they were planning something new. We decided to
let them know that we were not hurt, so we emerged; and I tried throwing
the shells back with my hand, but I could not control their erratic
course. When they saw this they jeered at me, and I itched to treat them
to just one pistol shot, only to show them what child's play their
fighting was! Presently we saw what they were waiting for. Far down the
road the two great birds were returning harnessed together, and dragging
behind them an enormous catapult. Tied across their backs were two stout
darts, seemingly twelve feet long and three inches square. Each of them
had a wicked-looking barbed tip.

There was a pleased and confident jabber among the slingers and archers
below as the birds arrived. The catapult was turned about toward us, and
lashed tightly to stakes driven in front and behind. Then the birds were
hitched to the cord of the immense bow, and they pulled it far back,
until the men made it fast in a notch. The cross-piece had now become
almost a half-circle, quite ten feet in diameter. The captain of a
company of archers acted as gunner, and carefully adjusted the catapult,
aiming it evidently at our shield. Upon seeing this we placed the two
shields together, and leaned them both inward toward us, so as to make
their angle with the upward course of the dart more obtuse, and thus
cause a glancing blow instead of a solid impact. Crouching under the
steel shelters, we awaited the dart.

Whiz-z-z it whistled up through the thin air! Bimm-m! it struck the top
of our outer shield, and glanced off as we had hoped. The outer steel
rattled and banged against the inner, and both shields pressed hard over
against us, but not the slightest damage was done.

We went out to watch them load the second dart. They evidently saw the
impotence of the glancing blow, and were noisily discussing it. A
captain of the slingers was arguing hotly with the gunner, who was
finally persuaded to take his aim a little lower. Then a hum of approval
went through the throng.

"They do think a little, but they are not secretive!" I sneered,
flopping our inner shield over flat on the ground. "Come, sit on this,
Doctor, and we will lean the outer shield over us, and snuggle in
between them as cosy as two oysters! Let them fondly imagine they can
shoot us through this pasty soil, and keep their own counsel better
after this!"

It was not a bad guess on my part; for the second dart struck the edge
of the cliff, bored through the loose soil, and thumped our lower shield
with a dull thud that lifted us from the ground. But the point and
edges of the dart were blunted, and crumbled with the blow, and I could
find no dent in the shield.

"See, the birds are returning to the city in haste for more darts!" said
the doctor. But I was interested in examining the first dart, which had
fallen a few hundred feet behind us. Its shaft was of roughly-hewn,
spongy wood, and it weighed far less than half the mass of soft pine
would on Earth. Its tip was not metal, but chipped stone--crumbly, like
the arrow-heads. Either they did not know the metals, or they were too
rare to be used in their arts. And it was to be supposed that they would
use the hardest stone they had for arrow-heads and dart-tips.

I carried the shaft easily upon my shoulder forward to the edge of the
cliff. This surprised even the doctor a little, for four Martians had
been necessary to put it in place upon the catapult. It must have
astonished them still more, for they were staring at me so blankly that
I was tempted to toss the dart down their gaping throats!

"Give them just one dose of their own medicine!" suggested the doctor.

"Perhaps I had better teach them to keep their dangerous weapons at
home," I said; and, balancing the dart easily above my head, I aimed it
carefully at a dense group around the catapult. I threw my whole force
into the thrust, and sent the shaft whizzing down at them. Then I
staggered back, quite exhausted by the effort and gasping for breath.

"Good God! You have impaled two of them upon the dart!" cried the
doctor, "and it is causing a panic in the whole army!"

And when I sprang up to look, I saw two writhing Martians, much shrunken
in size and dying upon the dart. The terror-stricken archers and
slingers were scattering and scurrying in every direction, regardless of
the shouted orders of their captains. The foremost of the impaled men
wore a beard, and was no other than the gunner of the catapult.

"I am sorry for the poor devils!" I exclaimed. "I had no idea they were
so soft and tender. They have shrunk like a pricked balloon!"

"They thought they could prick us like that, and let the life ooze out,"
said the doctor. "There is no danger that they will shoot any more at
us. The whole army is afraid that you will throw down the other dart."

Nevertheless, other companies of archers and slingers were seen leaving
the palace, and the birds were already returning with two more darts.
And the soldiers below were gaining courage and responding to the
rallying cries of the captains, who were halloing and pointing toward
the edge of the cliff, down in the direction of the cataract. I looked
quickly that way, and instantly shouted,--

"To the rifles, quick, doctor! The other two birds have ascended the
cliff, and are racing toward us along its edge. Take careful aim at the
head of that front one. Afterward, let drive two random bullets into his
body!"

Urged on by their riders, who with their hands swayed the long necks of
the birds in unison with their rhythmical stride, these two-legged
giraffes, with the wild look and sharp beak of an eagle, swept
menacingly toward us.

"Ready now!" I cried, as the foremost came within fifty feet of us.
"Fire!"

Two sharp reports almost simultaneous, with a less thunderous explosion
than on Earth, but singing in a higher key and flaming vastly more,
startled and terrified the Martians. Then crack! crack! bang! bang! four
other shots in swift succession, followed by the terrific croaking of
the wounded Terror-bird, which fell ponderously forward, kicking
violently and beating the ground wildly with its head.

Seizing my broadsword in a flash, I dealt it such a blow upon the neck
as quite to sever the head from the body. There was a gush of red blood;
and those who have seen the antics of a decapitated chicken, may
correspondingly multiply the corpse and imagine the confusion that now
ensued.

"Stand ready for the second bird!" I shouted to the doctor; but on
looking, I saw that the other animal refused to be urged forward, after
seeing the fate of his companion. His rider was half-hearted in his
efforts, and was watching the forward rider, who had been severely
thrown with the bird's fall, and badly bruised by the kicking and
threshing. He seemed to realize that he was in our power, and was
thoroughly desperate. With a wailing cry he rushed at me with open arms,
as if to embrace death, for I still held the sword. Dropping the weapon,
I grappled with him, catching him about the wrists, which shrank under
my grasp. He seemed to have scarcely the strength of a child; and
everywhere I touched him, his flesh yielded like the flabby muscles of a
fat baby. I bent him over backwards, then swung him around and caught
him by the shoulders, and whirled him around my head. Finally, I tossed
him over the edge of the cliff, where he landed among some bushes, and
scrambled down as fast as he could, glad to have saved his life. The
other rider had turned his bird back toward the cataract with all
possible despatch.

"The whole army below us is now thoroughly demoralized!" said the
jubilant doctor. "Many of them fled dismayed on hearing the firing, and
others screamed and ran away when they saw you decapitate the bird. But
your wrestling with the rider, and flinging him about like an infant,
was an object lesson none of them could stay to see repeated. I saw one
trembling fool slink back to cut the thong of the catapult, so that we
could not use it on them. They have wholly abandoned the attack!"

"If this is the worst they can do, I will undertake to make myself king,
and you prime minister here, within twenty-four hours!" I ejaculated,
decidedly pleased with the idea. "And I will maintain supremacy with a
standing army of a thousand Terror-birds!"

"The consciousness of superior strength always brings that desire for
conquest," answered the doctor. "We must not allow it to master us, but
we must push our advantage. Look! the panic of the first ones reaching
the city is spreading to the new companies marching out. They are
trampled over by the fleeing host, they turn and mingle with the
frightened mob in one struggling, terror-stricken mass! Come, let us be
into the projectile and after them. With a few booming shots above their
heads, we will make them think their Thunder-gods have come!"





Next: The Strange Bravery Of Miss Blank

Previous: The Terror Birds



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