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The Honey Of Death






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

At first nothing seemed to have been disturbed, when they
suddenly perceived that both forelegs were missing. On further
examination they found that the ponderous tail, seven feet in
diameter, was cut through in two places, the thicker portion
having disappeared, and that the heavy bones in this extremity of
the vertebral column had been severed like straws. The cut
surfaces were but little cooler than the interior of the body,
showing how recently the mutilation had been effected.

"By all the gods!" exclaimed Bearwarden, "it is easy to see the
method in this; the hunters have again cut off only those parts
that could be easily rolled. These Jovian fellows must have
weapons compared with which the old scythe chariots would be but
toys, with which they amputate the legs of their victims. We
must see to it that their scimitars do not come too near to us,
and I venture to hope that in our bullets they will find their
match. What say you, doctor?"

"I see no depression such as such heavy bodies would necessarily
have made had they been rolled along the ground, neither does it
seem to me that these curious tracks in the sand are those of
men."

The loose earth looked as if the cross-ties of some railroad had
been removed, the space formerly occupied having been but partly
filled, and these depressions were across the probable direction
of motion.

"Whatever was capable of chasing mastodons and carrying such
weights," said Ayrault, "will, I suspect, have little to fear
from us. Probably nothing short of light artillery would leave
much effect."

"I dare say," replied Bearwarden, "we had better give the unknown
quantity a wide berth, though I would give a year's salary to see
what it is like. The absence of other tracks shows that his
confreres leave 'Scissor- jaw' alone."

Keeping a sharp lookout in all directions, they resumed their
march along the third side of the square which was to bring them
back to the Callisto. Their course was parallel to the stream,
and on comparatively high ground. Cortlandt's gun did good
service, bringing down between fifty and sixty birds that usually
allowed them to get as near as they pleased, and often seemed
unwilling to leave their branches. By the time they were ready
for luncheon they saw it would be dark in an hour. As the
rapidity of the planet's rotation did not give them a chance to
become tired, they concluded not to pitch their camp, but to
resume the march by moonlight, which would be easy in the high,
open country they were traversing.

While in quest of fire-wood, they came upon great heaps of bones,
mostly those of birds, and were attracted by the tall,
bell-shaped flowers growing luxuriantly in their midst. These
exhaled a most delicious perfume, and at the centre of each
flower was a viscous liquid, the colour of honey.

"If this tastes as well as it looks," said Bearwarden, "it will
come in well for dessert"; saying which he thrust his finger into
the recesses of the flower, intending to taste the essence.
Quietly, but like a flash, the flower closed, his hand being
nearly caught and badly scratched by the long, sharp thorns that
now appeared at the edges.

"Ha!" he exclaimed, "a sensitive and you may almost say a
man-eating plant. This doubtless has been the fate of these
birds, whose bones now lie bleaching at its feet after they have
nourished its lips with their lives. No doubt the plant has use
for them still, since their skeletons may serve to fertilize its
roots."

Wishing to investigate further, Bearwarden placed one of the
birds they had shot within the bell of another flower, which
immediately contracted with such force that they saw drops of
blood squeezed out. After some minutes the flower opened, as
beautiful as ever, and discharged an oblong ball compressed to
about the size of a hen's egg, though the bird that was placed
within it had been as large as a small duck. Towards evening
these flowers sent up their most beautiful song, to hear which
flocks of birds came from far and near, alighting on the trees,
and many were lured to death by the siren strains and the honey.

Before resuming their journey, the travellers paid a parting
visit to the bell-shaped lilies on their pyramids of bones. The
flowers were closed for the night, and the travellers saw by the
moonlight that the white mounds were simply alive with
diamond-headed snakes. These coiled themselves, flattened their
heads, and set up such a hissing on the explorers' approach that
they were glad to retire, and leave this curious contrast of
hideousness and beauty to the fire-flies and the moons. Marching
along in Indian file, the better to avoid treading on the
writhing serpents that strewed the ground, they kept on for about
two hours. They frequently passed huge heaps or mounds of bones,
evidently the remains of bears or other large animals. The
carnivorous plants growing at their centre were often like hollow
trees, and might easily have received the three travellers in one
embrace. But as before, the mounds were alive with serpents that
evidently made them their homes, and raised an angry hiss
whenever the men approached.

"The wonder to me," said Bearwarden, "is, that these snakes do
not protect the game, by keeping it from the life-devouring
plants. It may be that they do not show themselves by day or
when the victims are near, or that the quadrupeds on which these
plants live take a pleasure, like deer, in killing them by
jumping with all four feet upon their backs or in some other way,
and after that are entrapped by the flowers."

Shortly after midnight they rested for a half hour, but the dawn
found them trudging along steadily, though somewhat wearily, and
having about completed the third side of their square.
Accordingly, they soon made a right-angle turn to the left, and
had been picking their way over the rough ground for nearly two
hours, with the sun already high in the sky, when they noticed a
diminution of light. Glancing up, they saw that one of the moons
was passing across the sun, and that they were on the eve of a
total eclipse.

"Since all but the fifth moon," said Cortlandt, "revolve exactly
in the plane of Jupiter's equator, any inhabitants that settle
there will become accustomed to eclipses, for there must be one
of the sun, and also of the moons, at each revolution, or about
forty-five hundred in every Jovian year. The reason we have seen
none before is, because we are not exactly on the equator."

They had a glimpse of the coronal streamers as the last portion
of the sun was covered, and all the other phenomena that attend
an eclipse on earth. For a few minutes there was a total return
to night. The twinkling stars and other moons shone tranquilly
in the sky, and even the noise of the insects ceased. Presently
the edge of the sun that had been first obscured reappeared, and
then Nature went through the phenomenon of an accelerated dawn.
Without awaiting a full return of light, the travellers proceeded
on their way, and had gone something over a hundred yards when
Ayrault, who was marching second, suddenly grasped Bearwarden,
who was in front, and pointed to a jet-black mass straight ahead,
and about thirty yards from a pool of warm water, from which a
cloud of vapour arose. The top of the head was about seven feet
high, and the length of the body exceeded thirty feet. The six
legs looked as strong as steel cables, and were about a foot
through, while a huge, bony proboscis nine feet in length
preceded the body. This was carried horizontally between two and
three feet from the ground. Presently a large ground sloth came
to the pool to drink, lapping up the water at the sides that had
partly cooled. In an instant the black armored monster rushed
down the slope with the speed of a nineteenth-century locomotive,
and seemed about as formidable. The sloth turned in the
direction of the sound, and for a moment seemed paralyzed with
fear; it then started to run, but it was too late, for the next
second the enormously exaggerated ant--for such it was--overtook
it. The huge mandible shears that when closed had formed the
proboscis, snapped viciously, taking off the sloth's legs and
then cutting its body to slivers. The execution was finished in
a few seconds, and the ponderous insect carried back about half
the sloth to its hiding-place, where it leisurely devoured it.

"This reminds me," said Bearwarden, "of the old lady who never
completed her preparations for turning in without searching for
burglars under the bed. Finally she found one, and exclaimed in
delight, 'I've been looking for you fifty years, and at last you
are here!' The question is, now that we have found our burglar,
what shall we do with him?"

"I constantly regret not having a rifle," replied Cortlandt,
"though it is doubtful if even that would help us here."

"Let us sit down and wait," said Ayrault; "there may be an
opening soon."

Anon a woolly rhinoceros, resembling the Rhinoceros tichorhinus
that existed contemporaneously on earth with the mammoth, came to
drink the water that had partly cooled. It was itself a
formidable-looking beast, but in an instant the monster again
rushed from concealment with the same tremendous speed. The
rhinoceros turned in the direction of the sound, and, lowering
its head, faced the foe. The ant's shears, however, passed
beneath the horn, and, fastening upon the left foreleg, cut it
off with a loud snap.

"Now is our chance," exclaimed Cortlandt; "we may kill the brute
before he is through with the rhinoceros."

"Stop a bit, doctor," said Bearwarden. "We have a good record so
far; let us keep up our reputation for being sports. Wait till
he can attend to us."

The encounter was over in less than a minute, three of the
rhinoceros's legs being taken off, and the head almost severed
from the body. Taking up the legs in its mandibles, the
murderous creature was returning to its lair, when, with the cry
of "Now for the fray!" Bearwarden aimed beneath the body and
blew off one of the farther armoured legs, from the inside.
"Shoot off the legs on the same side," he counselled Ayrault,
while he himself kept up a rapid fire. Cortlandt tried to
disconcert the enemy by raining duck-shot on its scale- protected
eyes, while the two rifles tore off great masses of the horn that
covered the enormously powerful legs. The men separated as they
retreated, knowing that one slash of the great shears would cut
their three bodies in halves if they were caught together. The
monster had dropped the remains of the rhinoceros when attacked,
and made for the hunters at its top speed, which was somewhat
reduced by the loss of one leg. Before it came within cutting
distance, however, another on the same side was gone, Ayrault
having landed a bullet on a spot already stripped of armour.
After this the men had no difficulty in keeping out of its way,
though it still moved with some speed, snipping off young trees
in its path like grass. Finally, having blown the scales from
one eye, the travellers sent in a bullet that exploded in the
brain and ended its career.

"This has been by all odds the most exciting hunt we have had,"
said Ayrault, "both on account of the determined nature and great
speed of the attack, and the almost impossibility of finding a
vulnerable spot."

"Anything short of explosive bullets," added Bearwarden, "would
have been powerless against this beast, for the armour in many
places is nearly a foot thick."

"This is also the most extraordinary as well as most dangerous
creature with which we have, had to deal," said Cortlandt,
"because it is an enormously enlarged insect, with all the
inherent ferocity and strength. It is almost the exact
counterpart of an African soldier-ant magnified many hundred
thousand times. I wonder," he continued thoughtfully, "if our
latter-day insects may not be the deteriorated (in point of size)
descendants of the monsters of mythology and geology, for nothing
could be a more terrible or ferocious antagonist than many of our
well-known insects, if sufficiently enlarged. No animal now
alive has more than a small fraction of the strength, in
proportion to its size, of the minutest spider or flea. It may
be that through lack of food, difficulties imposed by changing
climate, and the necessity of burrowing in winter, or through
some other conditions changed from what they were accustomed to,
their size has been reduced, and that the fire-flies, huge as
they seemed, are a step in advance of this specimen in the march
of deterioration or involution, which will end by making them as
insignificant as those on earth. These ants have probably come
into the woods to lay their eggs, for, from the behaviour of the
animals we watched from the turtle, there must have been several;
or perhaps a war is in progress between those of a different
colour, as on earth, in which case the woods may be full of them.
Doubtless the reason the turtle seemed so unconcerned at the
general uneasiness of the animals was because he knew he could
make himself invulnerable to the marauder by simply closing his
shell, and we were unmolested because it did not occur to the ant
that any soft-shelled creatures could be on the turtle's back."

"I think," said Bearwarden, "it will be the part of wisdom to
return to the Callisto, and do the rest of our exploring on
Jupiter from a safe height; for, though we succeeded in disabling
this beauty, it was largely through luck, and had we not done so
we should probably have provided a bon bouche for our deceased
friend, instead of standing at his grave."

Accordingly they proceeded, and were delighted, a few minutes
later, to see the sunlight reflected from the projectile's
polished roof.





Next: Changing Landscapes

Previous: Sportsmen's Reveries



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