A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 28

Again I felt above me. By Issus, there was something there! My fingers passed over a smooth surface—a familiar surface.

It could not be, and yet I knew that it must be—the Jhama.

I asked no questions of myself nor of fate at that instant. The hunting men of U-Gor were almost upon us as my groping fingers found one of the mooring rings in the bow of the Jhama. Quickly I swung Tavia above my head.

“It is the Jhama. Climb to her deck,” I cried.

The dear girl, as quick to seize upon the fortuitous opportunities as any trained fighting man, did not pause to question, but swung herself upward to the deck with the agility of an athlete, and as I seized the mooring ring and drew myself upward she lay flat upon her belly and reaching down assisted me; nor was the strength in that slender frame unequal to the task.

The leaders of the horde had reached the summit. They paused in momentary confusion when they saw us climb into thin air and stand there apparently just above their heads, but hunger urged them on and they leaped for us, clambering upon one another’s back and shoulders to seize us and drag us down.

Two almost gained the deck as I fought them all back single-handed while Tavia had raised a hatch and leaped to the controls.

Another foul-faced thing reached the deck upon the opposite side and only chance revealed him to me before he had run his sword through my back. The Jhama was already rising as I turned to engage him. There was little room there in which to fight, but I had the advantage in that I knew the extent of the deck beneath my feet, while he could see nothing but thin air. I think it frightened him, too, and when I rushed him he stepped backward out into space and, with a scream of terror, hurtled downward toward the ground.

We were saved, but how in the name of all our ancestors had the Jhama chanced to be at this spot.

Perhaps Tul Axtar was aboard! The thought filled me with alarm for Tavia’s safety and with my sword ready I leaped through the hatchway into the cabin, but only Tavia was there.

We tried to arrive at some explanation of the miracle that had saved us, but no amount of conjecture brought forth any thing that was at all satisfactory.

“She was there when we needed her most,” said Tavia; “that fact should satisfy us.”

“I guess it will have to for the time being at least,” I said, “and now once more we can turn a ship’s nose toward Helium.”

We had passed but a short distance beyond the mountains when I sighted a ship in the distance and shortly thereafter another and another until I was aware that we were approaching a great fleet moving toward the east. As we came closer I descried the hulls painted with the ghastly blue of Jahar and I knew that this was Tul Axtar’s formidable armada.

And then we saw ships approaching from the east and I knew that it was the fleet of Helium. It could be no other; yet I must make certain, and so I sped in the direction of the nearest ship of this other fleet until I saw the banners and pennons of Helium floating from her upper works and the battle insignia of the Warlord painted upon her prow. Behind her came the other ships—a noble fleet moving to inevitable doom.

A Jaharian cruiser was moving toward the first great battleship as I raced to intercept them and bring one of my rifles into action.

I was forced to come close to my target as was the Jaharian cruiser, since the effective range of the disintegrating ray rifle is extremely limited.

Everything aboard the battleship of Helium was ready for action, but I knew why they had not fired a gun. It has ever been the boast of John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom, that he would not start a war. The enemy must fire the first shot. If I could have reached them in time he would have realized the fatal consequences of this magnanimous and chivalrous code and the ships of Helium, with their long range guns, might have annihilated Jahar’s entire fleet before it could have brought its deadly rifles within range, but fate had ordained otherwise and now the best that I could hope was that I might reach the Jaharian ship before it was too late.

Tavia was at the controls. We were racing toward the blue cruiser of Jahar. I was standing at the forward rifle. In another moment we should be within range and then I saw the great battleship of Helium crumble in mid-air. Its wooden parts dropped slowly toward the ground and a thousand warriors plunged to a cruel death upon the barren land beneath.

Almost immediately the other ships of Helium were brought to a stop. They had witnessed the catastrophe that had engulfed the first ship of the line and the commander of the fleet had realized that they were menaced by a new force of which they had no knowledge.

The ships of Tul Axtar, encouraged by this first success, were now moving swiftly to the attack. The cruiser that had destroyed the great battleship was in the lead, but now I was within range of it.

Realizing that the blue protective paint of Jahar would safeguard the ship itself against the disintegrating ray, I had rammed home a cartridge of another type in the chamber and swinging the muzzle of the rifle so that it would rake the entire length of the ship, I pressed the button.

Instantly the men upon deck dissolved into thin air—only their harness and their metal and their weapons were left.

Directing Tavia to run the Jhama alongside, I raised the upper hatch and leaped to the deck of the cruiser and a moment later I had raised the signal of surrender above her. One can imagine the consternation aboard the nearer ships of Jahar as they saw that signal flying from her forward mast, for there was none sufficiently close to have witnessed what actually transpired aboard her.

Returning to the cabin of the Jhama I lowered the hatch and went at once to the periscope. Far in the rear of the first line of Jaharian ships I could just discern the royal insignia upon a great battleship, which told me that Tul Axtar was there, but in a safe position. I should have liked to reach his ship next, but the fleet was moving forward toward the ships of Helium and I dared not spare the time.

By now the ships of Helium had opened fire and shells were exploding about the leading ships of the Jaharian fleet—shells so nicely timed that they can be set to explode at any point up to the extreme range of the gun that discharges them. It takes nice gunnery to synchronize the timing with the target.

As ship after ship of the Jaharian fleet was hit, the others brought their big guns into action. Temporarily, at least, the disintegrating ray rifles had failed, but that they would succeed I knew if a single ship could get through the Heliumetic line, where among the great battleships she could destroy a dozen in the space of a few minutes.

The gunnery of the Jaharians was poor; their shells usually exploded high in air before they reached their target, but as the battle continued it improved; yet I knew that Jahar never could hope to defeat Helium with Helium’s own weapons.

A great battleship of Tul Axtar’s fleet was hit three times in succession almost alongside of me. I saw her drop by the stern and I knew that she was done for, and then I saw her commander rush to the bow and take the last long dive and I knew that there were brave men in Tul Axtar’s fleet as well as in the fleet of Helium, but Tul Axtar was not one of them, for in the distance I could see his flagship racing toward Jahar.

Despite the cowardice of the jeddak, the great fleet pushed on to the attack. If they had the courage they could still win, for their ships outnumbered the ships of Helium ten to one and as far as the eye could reach I could see them speeding from the north, from the south and from the west toward the scene of battle.

Closer and closer the ships of Helium were pressing toward the ships of Jahar. In his ignorance the Warlord was playing directly into the hands of the enemy. With their superior marksmanship and twenty battleships protected by the blue paint of Jahar, Helium could wipe out Tul Axtar’s great armada; of that I was confident, and with that thought came an inspiration. It might be done and only Tan Hadron of Hastor could do it.

Shells were falling all about us. The force of the explosions rocked the Jhama until she tossed and pitched like an ancient ship upon an ancient sea. Again and again were we perilously close to the line of fire of the Jaharian disintegrating ray rifles. I felt that I might no longer risk Tavia thus, yet I must carry out the plan that I had conceived.

It is strange how men change and for what seemingly trivial reasons. I had thought all my life that I would make any sacrifice for Helium, but now I knew that I would not sacrifice a single hair of that tousled head for all Barsoom. This, I soliloquized, is friendship.

Taking the controls I turned the bow of the Jhama toward one of the ships of Helium, that was standing temporarily out of the line of fire, and as we approached her side I turned the controls back over to Tavia, and, raising the forward hatch, sprang to the deck of the Jhama, raising both hands above my head in signal of surrender in the event that they might take me for a Jaharian.

What must they have thought when they saw me apparently floating upright upon thin air? That they were astonished was evident by the expressions on the faces of those nearest to me as the Jhama touched the side of the battleship.

They kept me covered as I came aboard, leaving Tavia to maneuver the Jhama.

Before I could announce myself I was recognized by a young officer of my own umak. With a cry of surprise he leaped forward and threw his arms about me. “Hadron of Hastor!” he cried. “Have I witnessed your resurrection from death; but no, you are too real, too much alive to be any wraith of the other world.”

“I am alive now,” I cried, “but none of us will be unless I can get word to your commander. Where is he?”

“Here,” said a voice behind me and I turned to see an old odwar who had been a great friend of my father’s. He recognized me immediately, but there was no time even for greetings.

“Warn the fleet that the ships of Jahar are armed with disintegrating ray rifles that can dissolve every ship as you saw the first one dissolve. They are only effective at short range.

“Keep at least a haad distance from them and you are relatively safe. And now if you will give me three men and direct the fire of your fleet away from the Jaharian ships on the south of their line, I will agree to have twenty ships for you in an hour—ships protected by the blue of Jahar in which you may face their disintegrating ray rifles with impunity.”

The odwar knew me well and upon his own responsibility he agreed to do what I asked.

Three padwars of my own class guaranteed to accompany me. I fetched Tavia aboard the battleship and turned her over to the protection of the old odwar, though she objected strenuously to being parted from me.

“We have gone through so much together, Hadron of Hastor,” she said, “let us go on to the end together.”

She had come quite close to me and spoken in a low voice that none might overhear. Her eyes, filled with pleading, were upturned to mine.

“I cannot risk you further, Tavia,” I said.

“There is so much danger then, you think?” she asked.

“We shall be in danger, of course,” I said; “this is war and one can never tell. Do not worry though. I shall come back safely.”

“Then it is that you fear that I shall be in the way,” she said, “and another can do the work better than I.”

“Of course not,” I replied. “I am thinking only of your safety.”

“If you are lost, I shall not live. I swear it,” she said, “so if you can trust me to do the work of a man, let me go with you instead of one of those.”

I hesitated. “Oh, Hadron of Hastor, please do not leave me here without you,” she said.

I could not resist her. “Very well, then,” I said, “come with me. I would rather have you than any other,” and so it was that Tavia replaced one of the padwars on the Jhama, much to the officer’s chagrin.

Before entering the Jhama I turned again to the old odwar. “If we are successful,” I said, “a number of Tul Axtar’s battleships will move slowly toward the Helium line beneath signals of surrender. Their crews will have been destroyed. Have boarding parties ready to take them over.”

Naturally every one aboard the battleship was intensely interested in the Jhama though all that they could see of her was the open hatch and the eye of the periscope. Officers and men lined the rail as we went aboard our invisible craft and as I closed the hatch, a loud cheer rang out above me.

My first act thoroughly evidenced my need of Tavia, for I put her at the after turret in charge of the rifle there, while one of the padwars took the controls and turned the prow of the Jhama toward the Jaharian fleet.

I was standing in a position where I could watch the changing scene upon the ground glass beneath the periscope and when a great battleship swung slowly into the miniature picture before me, I directed the padwar to lay a straight course for her, but a moment later I saw another battleship moving abreast of her, This was better and we changed our course to pass between the two.

They were moving gallantly toward the fleet of Helium, firing their big guns now and reserving their disintegrating ray rifles for closer range. What a magnificent sight they were, and yet how helpless. The tiny, invisible Jhama, with her little rifles, constituted a greater menace to them than did the entire fleet of Helium. On they drove, unconscious of the inevitable fate bearing down upon them.

“Sweep the starboard ship from stem to stern,” I called to Tavia. “I will take this fellow on our port,” and then to the padwar at the controls, “Half speed!”

Slowly we passed their bows. I touched the button upon my rifle and through the tiny sighting aperture I saw the crew dissolve in the path of those awful rays, as the two ships passed. We were very close—so close that I could see the expressions of consternation and horror on the faces of some of the warriors as they saw their fellows disappear before their eyes, and then their turn would come and they would be snuffed out in the twinkling of an eye, their weapons and their metal clattering to the deck.