“It’s not looking at us,” I said; “it’s watching the basto.”
“Do you suppose—” commenced Duare, and then her words were drowned by the most blood-curdling scream I have ever heard.
It came from the savage throat of the tharban at the instant it sprang toward the basto. The latter beast, lumbering to its feet, was caught at a disadvantage. The tharban leaped full upon its back, sinking talons and fangs deep into the tough flesh.
The bellowing of the basto mingled with the roars and growls of the tharban in a hideous diapason of bestial rage that seemed to rock the forest.
The huge bull wheeled in a frenzy of pain and sought to sink its horn in the thing upon its back. The tharban struck viciously at the savage face, raking downward from poll to muzzle, tearing hide and flesh to the bone, one great talon ripping an eye from its socket.
Its head a bloody mass of torn flesh, the basto threw itself upon its back with almost cat-like agility, seeking to crush the life from its tormentor; but the tharban leaped to one side and, as the bull scrambled to its feet, sprang in again.
This time the basto, wheeling with lowered head and incredible swiftness, caught the tharban full upon its horns and tossed it high into the foliage of the tree above.
A screaming, clawing hellion of unrestrained primitive rage and hate, the great carnivore hurtled upward within a few feet of Duare and me; and then, still clawing and screaming, it fell back.
Like a huge cat, that it most closely resembled, it came down feet first. With ready horns and tail stiffly erect, the basto waited to catch it and toss it again. Full on those powerful horns the tharban fell; but when the basto surged upward with all the strength of that mighty, bulging neck, the tharban did not soar upward into the tree again. With powerful claws and mighty jaws it clung to the head and neck of its antagonist. It raked shoulder and throat as the basto attempted to shake it loose. With fearful strokes of its talons it was tearing the basto to shreds.
In a bloody welter of gore, the stricken creature, now totally blinded by the loss of its remaining eye, wheeled in a grotesque and futile pirouette of death; but still its screaming Nemesis clung to it, tearing, striking in mad, blind rage, its hideous cries mingling with the now shrill death bellowings of the stricken bull.
Suddenly the basto stopped in its tracks, its feet spread swaying weakly. Blood was gushing from its neck in such a torrent that I was positive its jugular must have been severed; I knew that the end must be near and only wondered at the unbelievable tenacity with which the creature clung to life.
Nor was the tharban in an enviable state. Once badly gored and now impaled upon those two mighty horns, the blood of his terrible wounds mingling with the blood of his intended victim, his chances of survival were as negligible as those of the weaving bull, already seemingly dead upon its feet.
But how could I guess the inconceivable vitality of these mighty creatures?
With a sudden shake of his horns the bull stiffened; then he lowered his head and charged blindly, apparently with all the strength and vigor of unimpaired vitality.
It was to be a short charge. With terrific impact he struck the bole of the tree in which we were crouching. The branch upon which we sat swayed and snapped like a loose spar in a gale, and Duare and I were toppled from our perch.
Clutching futilely for support, we shot downward on top of the tharban and the basto. For an instant I was terrified for Duare’s safety, but there was no need for apprehension. Neither of these mighty engines of destruction turned upon us; neither moved. Except for a few convulsive shudders they lay still in death.
The tharban had been caught between the bole of the tree and massive poll of the basto and crushed to pulp; the basto had died as it wreaked its final, fearful vengeance on the tharban.
Duare and I had rolled to the ground beside the bodies of these mighty Titans; and now, uninjured, we sprang to our feet. Duare was pale and a trifle shaken, but she smiled bravely up into my face.
“Our hunting was more successful than we dreamed,” she said. “There is meat enough for many men.”
“Kamlot told me that there was nothing like a basto steak grilled over a wood fire.”
“They are delicious. My mouth is watering already.”
“And mine, too, Duare; but without a knife we are still a long way from the steak. Look at that thick hide.”
Duare looked crestfallen. “Did ever two people have such continuous bad luck?” she exclaimed. “But never mind,” she added. “Get your weapons, and perhaps we shall find something small enough to tear to pieces or cook whole.”
“Wait!” I exclaimed, opening the pocket pouch that hung over my shoulder by a stout cord. “I have a piece of stone with a sharp edge that I use for scraping my bow and arrows. I may be able to hack out a meal with it.”
It was a laborious job but I finally succeeded, and while I was engaged upon this crude and ragged butchery Duare gathered tinder and wood and surprised us both by starting a fire. She was very happy and excited over her success, and proud, too. In all her pampered life at home she had never been required to do a practical thing, and the reward of even this small accomplishment filled her with joy.
That meal was a memorable one; it was epochal. It marked the emergence of primitive man from the lower orders of life. He had achieved fire; he had fashioned weapons; he had made his kill (figuratively, in this case); and now for the first time he was eating cooked food. And I liked to carry the metaphor a little further in this instance and think of the partner of his achievements as his mate. I sighed as I thought of the happiness that might be ours did Duare but return my love.
“What’s the matter?” demanded Duare. “Why do you sigh?”
“I am sighing because I am not really a primitive man instead of a poor, weak imitation of one.”
“Why do you want to be a primitive man?” she inquired.
“Because primitive man was not bound by silly conventions,” I replied. “If he wanted a woman and she did not want him, he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to his lair.”
“I am glad that I did not live in those times,” said Duare.
For several days we wandered on through the forest. I knew that we were hopelessly lost, but I was anxious to get out of that gloomy wood. It was getting on our nerves. I managed to kill small game with my spear and my arrows; there was an abundance of fruit and nuts; and water was plentiful. In the matter of food we lived like kings, and we were fortunate in our encounters with the more formidable creatures we met. Luckily for us we saw none that were arboreal, though I am positive that this was merely by the luckiest chance, for the woods of Amtor harbor many terrible creatures that live wholly in the trees.
Duare, notwithstanding all the hardships and dangers she was constantly undergoing, seldom complained. She remained remarkably cheerful in the face of what was now palpably the absolute certainty that we could never hope to find the distant island where her father was king. Sometimes she was sober and silent for long periods, and I guessed that at these times she was sorrowing; but she did not share her sorrows with me. I wished that she would; we often share our sorrows with those we love.
But one day she suddenly sat down and began to cry. I was so surprised that I just stood there for several minutes staring at her before I could think of anything to say, and then I didn’t think of anything very brilliant.
“Why, Duare!” I cried. “What’s the matter? Are you ill?”
She shook her head and sought to stifle her sobs. “I’m sorry,” she managed to say at last. “I didn’t mean to; I’ve tried not to; but this forest! Oh, Carson, it’s on my nerves; it haunts me even in my sleep. It is endless; it goes on and on forever—gloomy, forbidding, filled with terrible dangers. There!” she exclaimed, and rising she shook her head as though to dispel unwelcome visions. “I’m all right now; I won’t do it again.” She smiled through her tears.
I wanted to take her in my arms and comfort her—oh, how badly I wanted to! But I only laid a hand upon her shoulder. “I know just how you feel,” I told her. “I’ve felt the same way for days. I have to take it out by swearing to myself. But it can’t last forever, Duare. There must be an end to it pretty soon; and, anyway, you must remember that the forest has fed us and sheltered us and protected us.”
“As a jailer feeds and shelters and protects the criminal condemned to die,” she responded dully. “Come! Let’s not speak of it any more.”
Once again the underbrush was thick, and we were following a game trail that was as erratic as most game trails. I think it was this thick brush that depressed Duare even more than the forest itself. I know it always depressed me. The trail was wide and we were walking abreast when suddenly at a turning the forest seemed to disappear in front of us. There was a void staring us in the face, and beyond that, far, far away, the outlines of distant mountains.