A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

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As we dropped astern of them, our work completed, I had the padwar bring the Jhama about and alongside one of the ships, which I quickly boarded, running up the signal of surrender. With the death of the officer at her controls she had fallen off with the wind, but I quickly brought her up again and, setting her at half speed, her bow toward the ships of Helium, I locked the controls and left her.

Returning to the Jhama we crossed quickly to the other ship and a few moments later it, too, was moving slowly toward the fleet of the Warlord, the signal of surrender fluttering above it.

So quickly had the blow been struck that even the nearer ships of Jahar were some time in realizing that anything was amiss. Perhaps they were unable to believe their own eyes when they saw two of their great battleships surrender before having been struck by a single shot, but presently the commander of a light cruiser seemed to awaken to the seriousness of the situation, even though he could not fully have understood it. We were already moving toward another battleship when I saw the cruiser speeding directly toward one of our prizes and I knew that it would never reach the fleet of Helium if he boarded it, a thing which I must prevent at all costs. His course would bring him across our bow and as he passed I raked him with the forward rifle.

I saw that it would be impossible for the Jhama to overtake this swift cruiser, which was moving at full speed and so we had to let her go her way. At first I was afraid she would ram the nearer prize and had she hit her squarely at the rate that she was traveling, the cruiser would have plowed half way through the hull of the battleship. Fortunately, she missed the great ship by a hair and went speeding on into the midst of the fleet of Helium.

Instantly she was the target for a hundred guns, a barrage of shells was bursting about her and then there must have been a dozen hits simultaneously, for the cruiser simply disappeared—a mass of flying debris.

As I turned back to our work I saw the havoc being wrought by the big guns of Helium upon the enemy ships to the north of me. In the instant that I glanced I saw three great battleships take the final dive, while at least four others were drifting helplessly with the wind, but other ships of that mighty armada were swinging into action. As far as I could see they were coming from the north, from the south and from the west. There seemed no end to them and now, at last, I realized that only a miracle could give victory to Helium.

In accordance with my suggestion our own fleet was holding off, concentrating the fire of its big guns upon the nearer ships of Jahar—constantly seeking to keep those deadly rifles out of range.

Again we fell to work—to the grim work that the god of battle had allotted to us. One by one, twenty great battleships surrendered their deserted decks to us and as we worked I counted fully as many more destroyed by the guns of the Warlord.

In the prosecution of our work we had been compelled to destroy at least half a dozen small craft, such as scout fliers and light cruisers, and now these were racing erratically among the remaining ships of the Jaharian fleet, carrying consternation and doubtless terror to the hearts of Tul Axtar’s warriors, for all the nearer ships must have realized long since that some strange, new force had been loosed upon them by the ships of Helium.

By this time we had worked so far behind the Jaharian first line that we could no longer see the ships of Helium, though bursting shells attested the fact that they were still there.

From past experience I realized that it would be necessary to protect the captured Jaharian ships from being re-taken and so I turned back, taking a position where I could watch as many of them as possible and it was well that I did so, for we found it necessary to destroy the crews of three more ships before we reached the battle line of Helium.

Here they had already manned a dozen of the captured battleships of Jahar, and, with the banners and pennons of Helium above them, they had turned about and were moving into action against their sister ships.

It was then that the spirit of Jahar was broken. This, I think, was too much for them as doubtless the majority of them believed that these ships had gone over to the enemy voluntarily with all their officers and crews, for few, if any, could have known that the latter had been destroyed.

Their Jeddak had long since deserted them. Twenty of their largest ships had gone over to the enemy and now protected by the blue of Jahar and manned by the best gunners of Barsoom, were plowing through them, spreading death and destruction upon every hand.

A dozen of Tul Axtar’s ships surrendered voluntarily and then the others turned and scattered; very few of them headed toward Jahar and I knew by that that they believed that the city must inevitably fall.

The Warlord made no effort to pursue the fleeing craft; instead he stationed the ships that we had captured from the enemy, more than thirty all told now, entirely around the fleet of Helium to protect it from the disintegrating ray rifles of the enemy in the event of a renewed attack, and then slowly we moved on Jahar.

 

XVI. — DESPAIR

IMMEDIATELY after the close of the battle the Warlord sent for me and a few moments later Tavia and I stepped aboard the flagship.

The Warlord himself came forward to meet us. “I knew,” he said, “that the son of Had Urtur would give a good account of himself. Helium can scarcely pay the debt of gratitude that you have placed upon her today. You have been to Jahar; your work today convinces me of that. May we with safety approach and take the city?”

“No,” I replied, and then briefly I explained the mighty force that Tul Axtar had gathered and the armament with which he expected to subdue the world. “But there is a way,” I said.

“And what is that?” he asked.

“Send one of the captured Jaharian ships with a flag of truce and I believe that Tul Axtar will surrender. He is a coward. He fled in terror when the battle was still young.”

“Will he honor a flag of truce?”

“If it is carried aboard one of his own ships, protected by the blue paint of Jahar, I believe that he will,” I said; “but at the same time I shall accompany the ship in the invisible Jhama.

“I know how I may gain entrance to the palace. I have abducted Tul Axtar once and perchance I may be able to do it again. If you have him in your hands, you can dictate terms to the nobles, all of whom fear the terrific power of the hungry multitude that is held in check now only by the instinctive terror they feel for their Jeddak.”

As we waited for the former Jaharian cruiser that was to carry the flag of truce to come alongside, John Carter told me what had delayed the expedition against Jahar for so many months.

The major domo of Tor Hatan’s palace, to whom I had entrusted the message to John Carter and which would have led immediately to the descent upon Jahar, had been assassinated while on his way to the palace of the Warlord. Suspicion, therefore, did not fall upon Tul Axtar and the ships of Helium scoured Barsoom for many months in vain search for Sanoma Tora.

It was only by accident that Kal Tavan the slave, who had overheard my conversation with the major domo, learned that the ships of Helium had not been dispatched to Jahar, for a slave ordinarily is not taken into the confidences of his master and the arrogant Tor Hatan was, of all men, least likely to do so; but Kal Tavan did hear eventually and he went himself to the Warlord and told his story.

“For his services,” said John Carter, I gave him his freedom and as it was apparent from his demeanor that he had been born to the nobility in his native country, though he did not tell me this, I gave him service aboard the fleet. He has turned out to be an excellent man and recently I have made him a dwar. Having been born in Tjanath and served in Kobol, he was more familiar with this part of Barsoom than any other man in Helium. I, therefore, assigned him to duty with the navigating officer of the fleet and he is now aboard the flagship.”

“I had occasion to notice the man immediately after Sanoma Tora’s abduction,” I said, “and I was much impressed by him. I am glad that he has found his freedom and the favor of the Warlord.”

The cruiser that was to bear the flag of truce was now alongside. The officer in command reported to the Warlord and as he received his instructions, Tavia and I returned to the Jhama. We had decided to carry on our part of the plan alone, for if it became necessary to abduct Tul Axtar again I had hoped, also, that I might find Phao and Sanoma Tora, and if so the small cabin of the Jhama would be sufficiently crowded without the addition of the two padwars. They were reluctant to leave her for I think they had had the most glorious experience of their lives during the short time that they had been aboard her, but I gained permission from the Warlord for them to accompany the cruiser to Jahar.

Once again Tavia and I were alone. “Perhaps this will be our last cruise aboard the Jhama,” I said.

“I think I shall be glad to rest,” she replied.

“You are tired?” I asked.

“More tired than I realized until I felt the safety and security of that great fleet of Helium about me. I think that I am just tired of being always in danger.”

“I should not have brought you now,” I said. “There is yet time to return you to the flagship.”

She smiled. “You know better than that, Hadron,” she said.

I did know better. I knew that she would not leave me. We were silent for a while as the Jhama slid through the air slightly astern of the cruiser. As I looked at Tavia’s face, it seemed to reflect a great weariness and there were little lines of sadness there that I had not seen before. Presently she spoke again in a dull tone that was most unlike her own.

“I think that Sanoma Tora will be glad to come away with you this time,” she said.

“I do not know,” I said. “It makes no difference to me whether she wishes to come or not. It is my duty to fetch her.”

She nodded. “Perhaps it is best,” she said; “her father is a noble and very rich.”

I did not understand what that had to do with it and not being particularly interested further in either Sanoma Tora or her father, I did not pursue the conversation. I knew that it was my duty to return Sanoma Tora to Helium if possible, and that was the only interest that I had in the affair.

We were well within sight of Jahar before we encountered any warships and then a cruiser came to meet ours which bore the flag of truce. The commanders of the two boats exchanged a few words and then the Jaharian craft turned and led the way toward the palace of Tul Axtar. It moved slowly and I forged on ahead, my plans already made, and the Jhama, being clothed with invisibility, needed no escort. I steered directly to that wing of the palace which contained the women’s quarters and slowly circled it, my periscope on a line with the windows.

We had rounded the end of the wing, in which the great hall lay where Tul Axtar held court with his women, when the periscope came opposite the windows of a gorgeous apartment. I brought the ship to a stop before it, as I had before some of the others which I wished to examine, and while the slowly moving periscope brought different parts of the large room to the ground glass plate before me I saw the figures of two women and instantly I recognized them. One was Sanoma Tora and the other Phao, and upon the figure of the former hung the gorgeous trappings of a Jeddara. The woman I had loved had achieved her goal, but it caused me no pang of jealousy. I searched the balance of the apartment and finding no other occupant, I brought the deck of the Jhama close below the sill of the window. Then I raised a hatch and leaped into the room.

At sight of me Sanoma Tora arose from the divan upon which she had been sitting and shrank back in terror. I thought that she was about to scream for help, but I warned her to silence, and at the same instant Phao sprang forward and, seizing Sanoma Tora’s arm, clapped a palm over her mouth. A moment later I had gained her side.

“The fleet of Jahar has gone down to defeat before the ships of Helium,” I told Sanoma Tora, “and I have come to take you back to your own country.”

She was trembling so that she could not reply. I had never seen such a picture of abject terror, induced no doubt by her own guilty conscience.

“I am glad you have come, Hadron of Hastor,” said Phao, “for I know that you will take me, too.”

“Of course,” I said. “The Jhama lies just outside that window Come! We shall soon be safe aboard the flagship of the Warlord.”

While I had been talking I had become aware of a strange noise that seemed to come from a distance and which rose and fell in volume and now it appeared to be growing nearer and nearer. I could not explain it; perhaps I did not attempt to, for at best I could be only mildly interested. I had found two of those whom I sought. I would get them aboard the Jhama and then I would try to locate Tul Axtar.

At that instant the door burst open and a man rushed into the room. It was Tul Axtar. He was very pale and he was breathing hard. At sight of me he halted and shrank back and I thought that he was going to turn and run, but he only looked fearfully back through the open door and then he turned to me, trembling.

“They are coming!” he cried in a voice of terror. “They will tear me to pieces.”

“Who is coming?” I demanded.

“The people,” he said. “They have forced the gates and they are coming, Do you not hear them?”

So that was the noise that had attracted my attention—the hungry hordes of Jahar searching out the author of their misery.

“The Jhama is outside that window,” I said. “If you will come aboard her as a prisoner of war, I will take you to the Warlord of Barsoom.”

“He will kill me, too,” wailed Tul Axtar.

“He should,” I assured him.