The best thing to do, then, was to get out of the crater; so they turned to the low point in the crater’s rim. It was then that they discovered that their prisoners had escaped.
As they swarmed out of the crater, they were not only frightened but angry. No prisoner had ever escaped before, and they didn’t purpose letting these prisoners get away with it. Being good trackers capable of moving with great speed, they had no doubt but that they would soon overhaul the fugitives. The latter however, were also fleet of foot; and they had two advantages: they did not have to watch for spoor to follow, and they were fleeing for their lives. There is no greater spur to honest and concentrated effort than this. Even the old man revealed amazing possibilities as he scampered in the wake of the others.
David and Hodon, being congenitally opposed to flight, hated the position in which they found themselves, but what were they to do? David alone was armed. He carried his crude bow and arrow and a stone knife but these were not enough to repel an attack by a numerically greater force of savage beasts such as the sabertooth men.
While they did not yet know that they were being followed, they assumed that they would be; and the old man had assured them that they would.
“I been there since before my teeth began falling out,” he said, “an’ you can lay to it that they’ll follow us all the way to hell an’ gone, for they ain’t no prisoner ever escaped from ’em in my time.”
Hodon, who was leading, guided them toward the little canyon where he and David had found sanctuary; and they succeeded in reaching its mouth before the first of the pursuers came within sight. It was just after they entered it that a chorus of savage roars told them that the sabertooth men had overtaken them.
David glanced back. Racing toward him were, three or four of the swiftest males and strung out behind them were other bucks and shes and young—the whole tribe was on their heels!
“Get the others into the cave, Hodon!” he called. “I’ll hold them up until you’re all in.”
Hodon hesitated. He wanted to come back and fight at David’s side.
“Go on!” shouted the latter. “We’ll all be lost if you don’t,” then Hodon raced on toward the cave with O-aa and the old man.
David wheeled about and sent an arrow into the breast of the leading savage. The fellow screamed and clutched at the shaft; then he spun around like a top and crashed to earth. A second and a third arrow in quick succession found their marks, and two more sabertooth warriors writhed upon the ground. The others paused. David fitted another arrow to his bow and backed away toward the cave.
The sabertooths jabbered and chattered among themselves. Finally a huge buck charged. Hodon and O-aa were in the cave; and the former, reaching down, grasped the hand of the old man and dragged him up. David was still backing toward the cave, holding his fire. His supply of arrows would not last forever; so he must not miss.
The great brute was almost upon him before he loosed his shaft. It drove straight through the heart of the buck, but there were others coming behind him. Not until he had dropped two more in rapid succession did the others pause momentarily; then David turned and raced for the cave. At his heels came the whole tribe of sabertooths, roaring and screaming. They came in mighty leaps and bounds, covering the ground twice as rapidly as David.
Hodon stood in the mouth of the cave. “Jump!” he cried to David. He leaned out and down, extending his hand. As David leaped upward toward the cave mouth, a sabertooth at his heels reached out to seize him; but simultaneously a bit of rock struck the fellow full between the eyes, and he stumbled forward on his face. O-aa, grinning, brushed the dust from her hands.
Hodon pulled David into the cave. “I never thought you’d make it,” he said.
There were extra spears and arrows in the cave and a little food. The waterfall dropped so close that they could reach out and catch water in a cupped hand. They would not suffer from thirst. One man with a spear could defend the entrance against such ill-armed brutes as the sabertooths. Altogether, they felt rather secure.
“These brutes won’t stay here forever,” said David. “When they find they can’t get us, they’ll go away.”
“You don’t know ’em,” said the old man. “They’ll stick around here ’till Hell freezes over, but the joke’s goin’ to be on them.”
“What do you mean?” asked David.
“Why, instead of gettin’ four of us, they’re only goin’ to get one,” explained the old man.
“How’s that?” inquired David.
“We can’t get no food in here,” said the old man; “so we gotta eat each other. I reckon I’ll be the last man. I’m too dod-burned old and tough to eat. Even the sabertooths wouldn’t eat me. This here’ll make a tender morsel. I reckon we’ll start on her.”
“Shut up!” snapped David. “We’re not cannibals.”
“Well, neither was I back at Cape Cod. I would have reared up on my hind legs an’ hit anybody then that had said I’d ever eat man, woman, or child; but then I hadn’t never nearly starved to death, nor I didn’t know what good eatin’ some people can be after you get used to it. Before you come along I was tellin’ these other two, about that sweet Swede I et once.”
“You also said,”, interposed O-aa, “that after you’d eaten all your friends you were about to cut your leg off and start eating yourself.”
“Yes,” admitted the old man, “that’s plumb right.”
“Then,” said O-aa, “when you get hungry, you’d better start eating yourself; because you’re not going to eat any of us.”
“That’s what I calls plumb selfish,” said the old man. “If we don’t eat each other, the sabertooths are goin’ to eat us; an’ I’d think you’d rather be eaten by a friend than by one of them criters.”
“Look here—er—what is your name, anyway?” David spoke with marked asperity.
The old man puckered his brow in thought. “Dod-burn it,” he exclaimed at last. “What the dickens is my name? I’ll be dod-burned if I ain’t plumb forgot. You see I ain’t heard it since I was a young man.”
“I think,” said O-aa to David, “that his name is Dolly Dorcas.”
“Well, never mind,” said David; “but get this straight: there’s to be no more talk of eating one another. Do you understand?”
“Wait until you get good an’ hungry,” said the old man; “then it won’t be a matter of talking about it.”
David rationed out what food there had been stored in the cave—mostly nuts and tubers; as these would not spoil quickly. Each had his share. They took turns watching, while the others slept, if they cared to; and as there was nothing else to do, they slept a great part of the time. It is a custom of Pellucidarians. They seem to store up energy thus, so that they need less sleep, afterward. Thus they prepare themselves for long journeys or arduous undertakings.
Some of the sabertooths remained in the canyon at all times. They made several attempts to storm the cave; but after being driven off easily, they gave up. They would starve their quarry out.
The food supply in the cave dwindled rapidly. David presently suspected that it dwindled fastest while the old man was on watch and the others slept; so once he feigned sleep and caught the old man taking a little food from the supply of each of the others and hiding it in a crevice in the back of the cave.
He awoke the others and told them, and O-aa wanted to kill the old man at once. “He deserves to die,” said David, “but I have a better plan than that of killing him ourselves. We’ll drop him down to the sabertooths.”
The old man whimpered and begged, and promised never to do it again; so they let him live, but they did not let him stand watch alone again.
At last their food was all gone, and the sabertooths were still in the canyon. The besieged were ravenous. They drank quantities of water to allay the craving for food. They were getting weaker and weaker, and David realized that the end was near. They slept a great deal, but fitfully.
Once, when O-aa was standing watch, David awoke with a start; and was horrified to see the old man sneaking up behind her with a spear. His intentions were all too obvious. David called a warning and leaped for him but just in time.
Hodon awoke. The old man was grovelling on the floor of the cave. O-aa and David were looking down at him.
“What has happened?” demanded Hodon.
They told him. Hodon came toward the old man. “This time he dies,” he said.
“No! No!” shrieked the terrified creature. “I was not going to keep it all for myself. I was going to share it with you.”
“You beast!” exclaimed Hodon, picking up the spear the old man had dropped.
Screaming the latter leaped to his feet; and, running to the mouth of the cave, sprang out.
A hundred sabertooths were in the canyon. Straight toward them the old man ran, screaming at the top of his voice, his eyes wild with terror, his toothless mouth contorted.
The sabertooths fell aside, shrinking from him; and through the lane they made the old man fled and disappeared in the forest beyond the end of the canyon.