A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

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The mishap was a severe blow to my hopes and yet it did not shatter them entirely, for I am so constituted that I know I shall never give up hope of success in any issue as long as life remains to me.

How much longer my ship would remain afloat it was difficult to say, and, having no means of making such repairs as would be necessary to conserve the remaining contents of the punctured buoyancy tank, the best that I could do was to increase my speed so that I might cover as much distance as possible before I was forced down. The construction of my ship was such that at high speed it tended to maintain itself in the air with a minimum of the Eighth Ray in its buoyancy tanks; yet I knew that the time was not far distant when I should have to make a landing in this dreary, desolate wasteland.

I had covered something in the neighborhood of two thousand haads since I had been fired upon above Torquas, crossing what had been a large gulf when the waters of the ocean rolled over the vast plains that now lay moss covered and arid beneath me. Far ahead I could see the outlines of low hills that must have marked the southwestern shore line of the gulf. Toward the northwest the dead sea bottom extended as far as the eye could reach, but this was not the direction I wished to take, and so I sped on toward the hills hoping that I might maintain sufficient altitude to cross them, but as they swiftly loomed closer this hope died in my breast and I realized that the end of my flight was now but a matter of moments. At the same time I discerned the ruins of a deserted city nestling at the foot of the hills; nor was this an unwelcome sight since water is almost always to be found in the wells of these ancient cities, which have been kept in repair by the green nomads of the wasteland.

By now I was skimming but a few ads above the surface of the ground. (Note: An ad is about 9.75 earth feet.) I had greatly diminished my speed to avoid a serious accident in landing and because of this the end was hastened so that presently I came gently to rest upon the ocher vegetation scarcely a haad from the water-front of the deserted city.

 

III. — CORNERED

MY landing was most unfortunate in that it left me in plain sight of the city without any place of concealment in the event that the ruins happened to be occupied by one of the numerous tribes of green men who infest the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom, often making their headquarters in one or another of the deserted cities that line the ancient shore.

The fact that they usually choose to inhabit the largest and most magnificent of the ancient palaces and that these ordinarily stand back some little distance from the water-front rendered it quite possible that even in the event that there were green men in the city I might reach the concealing safety of one of the nearer buildings before I was discovered by them.

My flier being now useless, there was nothing to do but abandon it, and so, with only my weapons, ammunition and a little concentrated rations, I walked quickly in the direction of the age old water-front. Whether or not I reached the buildings unobserved, I was unable to determine, but at any rate I did reach them without seeing any sign of a living creature about.

Portions of many of these ancient, deserted cities are inhabited by the great white apes of Barsoom, which are in many respects more to be feared than the green warriors themselves, for not only are these man-like creatures endowed with enormous strength and characterized by intense ferocity, but they are also voracious man-eaters. So terrible are they that it is said that they are the only living creatures that can instill fear within the breasts of the green men of Barsoom.

Knowing the possible dangers that might lurk within the precincts of this ruin, it may be wondered that I approached it at all, but as a matter of fact there was no safe alternative. Out upon the dead monotony of the ocher moss of the sea bottom, I should have been discovered by the first white ape or green Martian that approached the city from that direction, or that chanced to come from the interior of the ruins to the water-front. It was, therefore, necessary for me to seek concealment until night had fallen, since only by night might I travel in safety across the sea bottom, and, as the city offered the only concealment nearby, I had no choice but to enter it. I can assure you that it was not without feelings of extreme concern that I clambered to the surface of the broad avenue that once skirted the shore of a busy harbor. Across its wide expanse rose the ruins of what once had been shops and warehouses, but whose eyeless windows now looked down upon a scene of and desolation. Gone were the great ships! Gone the busy, hurrying throngs! Gone the ocean!

Crossing the avenue I entered one of the taller buildings, which I noticed was surmounted by a high tower. The entire structure, including the tower, seemed to be in an excellent state of preservation and it occurred to me that if I could ascend into the latter, I should be able to obtain an excellent view of the city and of the country that lay beyond it to the southwest, which was the direction in which I intended to pursue my search for Jahar I reached the building apparently unobserved, and, entering, found myself in a large chamber, the nature and purpose of which it was no longer possible to determine, since such decorations as may possibly have adorned its walls in the past were no longer discernible and whatever furniture it may have contained to give a clue to its identity had long since been removed. There was an enormous fireplace in the far end of the room and at one side of this fireplace a ramp led downward, and upon the other a similar ramp led upward.

Listening intently for a moment I heard no sound, either within or without the building, so that it was with considerable confidence that I started to ascend the ramp.

Upward I continued from floor to floor, each of which consisted of a single large chamber, a fact which finally convinced me that the building had been a warehouse for the storing of goods passing through this ancient port.

From the upper floor a wooden ladder extended upward through the center of the tower above. It was of solid skeel, which is practically indestructible, so that though I knew it might be anywhere from five hundred thousand to a million years old, I did not hesitate to trust myself to it.

The circular interior core of the tower, upward through which the ladder extended, was rather dark. At each landing there was an opening into the tower chamber at that point, but as many of these openings were closed only a subdued light penetrated to the central core.

I had ascended to the second level of the tower when I thought that I heard a strange noise beneath me.

Just the suggestion of a noise it was, but such utter silence had reigned over the deserted city that the faintest sound must have been appreciable to me.

Pausing in my ascent, I looked down, listening; but the sound which I had been unable to translate was not repeated, and I continued my way on upward.

Having it in my mind to climb as high up in the tower as possible, I did not stop to examine any of the levels that I passed.

Continuing upward for a considerable distance my progress was finally blocked by heavy planking that appeared to form the ceiling of the shaft. Some eight or ten feet below me was a small door that probably led to one of the upper levels of the tower and I could not but wonder why the ladder had been continued on upward above this doorway, since it could serve no practical purpose if it merely ended at the ceiling. Feeling above me with my fingers I traced the outlines of what appeared to be a trap door. Obtaining a firm footing upon the ladder as high up as I could climb, I placed a shoulder against the barrier. In this position I was able to exert considerable pressure upward with the result that presently I felt the planking rise above me and a moment later, to the accompaniment of subdued groans, the trap door swung upward upon ancient wooden hinges long unused. Clambering into the apartment above I found myself upon the top level of the tower, which rose to a height of some two hundred feet above the avenue below. Before me were the corroded remains of an ancient and long obsolete beacon-light, such as were used by the ancients long before the discovery of radium and its practical and scientific application to the lighting requirements of modern civilization upon Barsoom. These ancient lamps were operated by expensive machines which generated electricity, and this one was doubtless used as a beacon for the safe guidance of ancient mariners into the harbor, whose waters once rolled almost to the foot of the tower.

This upper level of the tower afforded an excellent view in all directions. To the north and northeast stretched a vast expanse. To the south was a range of low hills that curved gently in a northeasterly direction, forming in by-gone days the southern shore line of what is still known as the Gulf of Torquas. Toward the west I looked out over the ruins of a great city, which extended far back into low hills, the flanks of which it had mounted as it expanded from the sea shore. There in the distance I could still discern the ancient villas of the wealthy, while in the nearer foreground were enormous public buildings, the most pretentious of which were built upon the four sides of a large quadrangle that I could easily discern a short distance from the water-front. Here, doubtless, stood the official palace of the jeddak who once ruled the rich country of which this city was the capital and the principal port. There, now, only silence reigns. It was indeed a depressing sight and one fraught with poignant prophecy for us of present day Barsoom.

Where they battled valiantly but futilely against the menace of a constantly diminishing water supply, we are faced with a problem that far transcends theirs in the importance of its bearing upon the maintenance of life upon our planet. During the past several thousand years only the courage, resourcefulness and wealth of the red men of Barsoom have made it possible for life to exist upon our dying planet, for were it not for the great atmosphere plants conceived and built and maintained by the red race of Barsoom, all forms of air breathing creatures would have become extinct thousands of years ago.

As I gazed out over the city, my mind occupied with these dismal thoughts, I again became aware of a sound coming from the interior of the tower beneath me, and, stepping to the open trap, I looked down into the shaft and there, directly below me, I saw that which might well make the stoutest Barsoomian heart quail—the hideous, snarling face of a great white ape of Barsoom.

As our eyes met the creature voiced an angry growl and, abandoning its former stealthy approach, rushed swiftly up the ladder. Acting almost mechanically I did the one and only thing that might even temporarily stay its rush upon me—I slammed down the heavy trap door above its head, and as I did so I saw for the first time that the door was equipped with a heavy wooden bar, and you may well believe that I lost no time in securing this, thus effectually barring the creature’s ascent by this route into the veritable cul de sac in which I had placed myself.

Now, indeed, was I in a pretty predicament—two hundred feet above the city with my only avenue of escape cut off by one of the most feared of all the savage beasts of Barsoom.

I had hunted these creatures in Thark as a guest of the great green Jeddak, Tars Tarkas, and I knew something of their cunning and resourcefulness as well as of their ferocity. Extremely man-like in conformation, they also approach man more closely than any other of the lower orders in the size and development of their brain. Occasionally these creatures are captured when young and trained to perform, and so intelligent are they that they can be taught to do almost anything that man can do that lies within the range of their limited reasoning capacity. Man has, however, never been able to subdue their ferocious nature and they are always the most dangerous of animals to handle, which probably accounts more even than their intelligence for the interest displayed by the large audiences that they unfailingly attract.

In Hastor I have paid a good price to see one of these creatures and now I found myself in a position where I should very gladly pay a good deal more not to see one, but from the noise he was making in the shaft beneath me it appeared to me that he was determined that I should have a free show and he a free meal. He was hurling himself as best he could against the trap door, above which I stood with some misgivings which were presently allayed when I realized that not even the vast strength of a white ape could avail against the still staunch and sturdy skeel of the ancient door.

Finally convinced that he could not come at me by this avenue, I set about taking stock of my situation. Circling the tower I examined its outward architecture by the simple expedient of leaning far outward above each of the four sides. Three sides terminated at the roof of the building a hundred and fifty feet below me, while the fourth extended to the pavement of the courtyard two hundred feet below. Like much of the architecture of ancient Barsoom, the surface of the tower was elaborately carved from top to bottom and at each level there were window embrasures, some of which were equipped with small stone balconies. As a rule there was but a single window to a level, and as the window for the level directly beneath never opened upon the same side of the tower as the window for the level above, there was always a distance of from thirty to forty feet between windows upon the same side, and, as I was examining the outside of the tower with a view to its offering me an avenue of escape, this point was of great importance to me, since a series of window ledges, one below another, would have proved a most welcome sight to a man in my position.

By the time I had completed my survey of the exterior of the tower the ape had evidently come to the conclusion that he could not demolish the barrier that kept him from me and I hoped that he would abandon the idea entirely and depart. But when I lay down on the floor and placed an ear close to the door I could plainly hear him just below as he occasionally changed from one uncomfortable position to another upon the small ladder beneath me. I did not know to what extent these creatures might have developed pertinacity of purpose, but I hoped that he might soon tire of his vigil and his thoughts be diverted into some other channel. However, as the day wore to a close this possibility seemed to grow more and more remote until at last I became almost convinced that the creature had determined to lay siege until hunger or desperation forced me from my retreat.

How longingly I gazed at the beckoning hills beyond the city where lay my route toward the southwest—toward fabled Jahar.

The sun was low in the west. Soon would come the sudden transition from daylight to darkness, and then what? Perhaps the creature would abandon its vigil; hunger or thirst might attract it elsewhere, but how was I to know? How easily it might descend to the bottom of the tower and await me there, confident that sooner or later I must come down.

One unfamiliar with the traits of these savage creatures might wonder why, armed as I was with sword and pistol, I did not raise the trap door and give battle to my jailer. Had I known positively that he was the only white ape in the vicinity I should not have hesitated to do so, but experience assured me that there was doubtless an entire herd of them quartered in the ruined city. So scarce is the flesh they crave that it is their ordinary custom to hunt alone, so that in the event that they make a kill they may be more certain of retaining the prize for themselves, but if I should attack him he would most certainly raise such a row as to attract his fellows, in which event my chance for escape would have been reduced to the ultimate zero.

A single shot from my pistol might have dispatched him, but it was equally possible that it would not, for these great white apes of Barsoom are tremendous creatures, endowed with almost unbelievable vitality. Many of them stand fully fifteen feet in height and are endowed by nature with tremendous strength. Their very appearance is demoralizing to an enemy; their white, hairless bodies are in themselves repulsive to the eye of a red man; the great shock of white hair bristling erect upon their pates accentuates the brutality of their countenances, while their intermediary set of limbs, which they use either as arms or legs as necessity or whim suggests, render them most formidable antagonists. Quite generally they carry a club, in the use of which they are terribly proficient. One of them, therefore, seemed sufficiently a menace in itself, so that I had no desire to attract others of its kind, though I was fully aware that eventually I might be forced to carry the battle to him.