The Cave Girl/Chapter VI

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The Cave Girl by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Chapter VI: A Choice

SEAMEN upon the beach were filling water-casks.

There were a dozen of them, and as Waldo plunged from the forest they looked with startled apprehension at the strange apparition. A great, brown giant they saw, clad in a few ragged strings of white duck, for Waldo had kept his apparel as immaculately clean as hard rubbing in cold water would permit.

In one hand the strange creature carried a long, bloody spear, in the other a light cudgel. Long, yellow hair streamed back over his broad shoulders.

Several of the men — those who were armed — leveled guns and revolvers at him; but when, as he drew closer, they saw a broad grin upon his face, and heard in perfectly good English, “Don’t shoot; I’m a white man,” they lowered their weapons and awaited him.

He had scarcely reached them when they saw a swarm of naked men dash from the forest in his wake. Waldo saw their eyes directed past him and knew that his pursuers had come into view.

“You’ll have to shoot at them, I imagine,” he said. “They’re not exactly domesticated. Try firing over their heads at first; maybe you can scare them away without hurting any of them.” He disliked the idea of seeing the poor savages slaughtered.

It didn’t seem just like fair play to mow them down with bullets.

The sailors followed his suggestion. At the first reports the cave men halted in surprise and consternation.

“Let’s rush ‘em,” suggested one of the men, and this was all that was needed to send them scurrying back into the woods.

Waldo found that the ship was English, and that all the men spoke his mother tongue in more or less understandable fashion.

The second mate, who was in charge of the landing party, proved to have originated in Boston. It was much like being at home again.

Waldo was so excited and wanted to ask so many questions all at once that he became almost unintelligible. It seemed scarcely possible that a ship had really come.

He realized now that he had never actually entertained any very definite belief that a ship ever would come to this out-of-the-way corner of the world. He had hoped and dreamed, but down in the bottom of his heart he must have felt that years might elapse before he would be rescued.

Even now it was difficult to believe that these were really civilized beings like himself.

They were on their way to a civilized world; they would soon be surrounded by their families and friends, and he, Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, was going with them!

In a few months he would see his mother and his father and all his friends — he would be among his books once more.

Even as the last thought flashed through his mind it was succeeded by mild wonderment that this outlook failed to raise his temperature as he might have expected that it would. His books had been his real life in the past — could it be that they had lost something of their glamour? Had his brief experience with the realities of life dulled the edge of his appetite for second-hand hopes, aspirations, deeds, and emotions?

It had.

Waldo yet craved his books, but they alone would no longer suffice. He wanted something bigger, something more real and tangible — he wanted to read and study, but even more he wanted to do. And back there in his own world there would be plenty awaiting the doing.

His heart thrilled at the possibilities that lay before the new Waldo Emerson — possibilities of which he never would have dreamed but for the strange chance which had snatched him bodily from one life to throw him into this new one, which had forced upon him the development of attributes of self-reliance, courage, initiative, and resourcefulness that would have lain dormant within him always but for the necessity which had given birth to them.

Yes, Waldo realized that he owed a great deal to this experience — a great deal to — And then a sudden realization of the truth rushed in upon him — he owed everything to Nadara.

“I was never shipwrecked on a desert island,” said the second mate, breaking in upon Waldo’s reveries, “but I can imagine just about how good you feel at the thought that you are at last rescued and that in an hour or so you will see the shoreline of your prison growing smaller and smaller upon the southern horizon.” “Yes,” acquiesced Waldo in a far away voice: “it’s awfully good of you, but I am not going with you.” Two hours later Waldo Emerson stood alone upon the beach, watching the diminishing hull of a great ship as it dropped over the rim of the world far to the north.

A vague hint of tears dimmed his vision; then he threw back his shoulders, swallowed the thing that had risen into his throat, and with high held head turned back into the forest.

In one hand he carried a razor and a plug of tobacco — the sole mementos of his recent brief contact with the world of civilization. The kindly sailors had urged him to reconsider his decision, but when he remained obdurate they had insisted that they be permitted to leave some of the comforts of life with him.

The only thing that he could think of that he wanted very badly was a razor — firearms he would not accept, for he had worked out a rather fine chivalry of his own here in this savage world — a chivalry which would not permit him to take any advantage over the primeval inhabitants he had found here other than what his own hands and head might give him.

At the last moment one of the seamen, prompted by a generous heart and a keen realization of what life must be without even bare necessities, had thrust upon Waldo the plug of tobacco.

As he looked at it now the young man smiled.

“That would indeed be the last step, according to mother’s ideas,” he soliloquized. “No lower could I sink.” The ship that bore away Waldo’s chance of escape carried also a long letter to Waldo’s mother. In portions it was rather vague and rambling. It mentioned, among other things, that he had an obligation to fulfil before he could leave his present habitat; but that the moment he was free he should “take the first steamer for Boston.” The skipper of the ship which had just sailed away had told Waldo that in so far as he knew there might never be another ship touch his island, which was so far out of the beaten course that only the shore-line of it had ever been explored, and scarce a score of vessels had reported it since Captain Cook discovered it in 1773.

Yet it was in the face of this that Waldo had refused to leave. As he walked slowly through the wood on his way back toward his cave he tried to convince himself that he had acted purely from motives of gratitude and fairness — that as a gentleman he could do no less than see Nadara and thank her for the friendly services she had rendered him; but for some reason this seemed a very futile and childish excuse for relinquishing what might easily be his only opportunity to return to civilization.

His final decision was that he had acted the part of a fool; yet as he walked he hummed a joyous tune, and his heart was full of happiness and pleasant expectations of what he could not have told.

To one thing he had made up his mind, and that was that the next sun would see him on his way to the village of Nadara.

His experience with the savages that day had convinced him that he might with reasonable safety face Flatfoot and Korth.

The more he dwelt upon this idea the more lighthearted he became — he could not understand it. He should be plunged into the blackest despair, for had he not but just relinquished a chance to return home, and was he not within a day or two to enter the village of the ferocious Flatfoot and the mighty Korth? Even so, his heart sang.

Waldo saw nothing of his enemies of the earlier part of the day as he moved cautiously through the forest or crossed the little plains and meadows which lay along the route between the ocean and his lair; but his thoughts often reverted to them and to his adventures of the morning, and the result was that he became aware of a deficiency in his equipment — a deficiency which his recent battle made glaringly apparent.

In fact, there were two points that might be easily remedied.

One was the lack of a shield. Had he had protection of this nature he would have been in comparatively little danger from the shower of missiles that the savages had flung at him.

The other was a sword. With a sword and shield he could have let his enemies come to very close quarters with perfect impunity to himself and then have run them through with infinite ease.

This new idea would necessitate a delay in his plans; he must finish both shield and sword before he departed for the village of Flatfoot. What with his meditation and his planning, Waldo had made poor time on the return journey from the coast, so that it was after sunset when he entered the last deep ravine beyond the farther summit of which lay his rocky home. In the depths of the ravine it was already quite dark, though a dim twilight still hung upon the surrounding hill-tops.

He had about completed the arduous ascent of the last steep trail, at the crest of which was his journey’s end, when above him, silhouetted against the darkening sky, loomed a great black, crouching mass, from the center of which blazed two balls of fire.

It was Nagoola, and he occupied the center of the only trail that led over the edge of the ridge from the ravine below.

“I had almost forgotten you, Nagoola,” murmured Waldo Emerson. “I could never have gone upon my journey without first interviewing you, but I could have wished a different time and place than this. Let us postpone the matter for a day or so,” he concluded aloud; but the only response from Nagoola was an ominous growl. Waldo felt rather uncomfortable.

He could not have come upon the great, black panther at a more inopportune time or place. It was too dark for Waldo’s human eyes, and the cat was above him and Waldo upon a steep hillside that under the best of conditions offered but a precarious foothold. He tried to shoo the formidable beast away by shouts and menacing gesticulations, but Nagoola would not shoo. Instead he crept slowly forward, edging his sinuous body inch by inch along the rocky trail until it hung poised above the waiting man a dozen feet below him.

Six months before Waldo would long since have been shrieking in meteorlike flight down the bed of the ravine behind him. That a wonderful transformation had been wrought within him was evident from the fact that no cry of fright escaped him, and that, far from fleeing, he edged inch by inch upward toward the menacing creature hanging there above him. He carried his spear with the point leveled a trifle below those baleful eyes.

He had advanced but a foot or two, however, when, with an awful shriek, the terrible beast launched itself full upon him.

As the heavy body struck him Waldo went over backward down the cliff, and with him went Nagoola.

Clawing, tearing, and scratching, the two rolled and bounded down the rocky hillside until, near the bottom, they came to a sudden stop against a large tree.

The growling and screeching ceased, the clawing paws and hands were still. Presently the tropic moon rose over the hill-top to look down upon a little tangled mound of man and beast that lay very quiet against the bole of a great tree near the bottom of a dark ravine.