Chapter 21: Man to Man

Morgo the Mighty by Sean O’Larkin was originally serialized in The Popular Magazine in 1930. I’m serializing it again here. Except for correcting the odd typo, I’m reproducing the text as printed in the original publication.

The movement of many heavy bodies plowing through the underbrush aroused me from my reveries. Animals? Men? Morgo and the girl? I had heard the incessant tramp of marching men going up to the front in France. I was hearing it again.

Cautiously, I raised my head, and scrutinized the fanciful jade screens of leaves and vines, and rainbow flowers behind which the marching feet were hidden. I could see nothing.

A voice thundered in commanding tones. It was guttural and deeply throaty.

And I had heard it before – that day when I fell into Shamman. It was Zorimi’s. He still lived – and the body at my feet no longer solved the mysteries of the magician.

Slinking forms, bobbing heads and shining purple bodies glided into view and I dropped flat on my stomach, crawling into the tall green grass. I had seen Silurians. I had seen the atavistic men of Shamman in gray hordes. All were tramping from this Canaan into the tunnel of the Hoatzins.

When I turned from that column of prehistoric men, to retreat to the high ground where Morgo must be warned, I was forced to burrow into deeper grass. There were scale-skinned creatures on that side, too. There could be no retreat now – yet Morgo and the girl must be warned.

I crouched between two streams of enemies which converged into the tunnel. Zorimi came into view, carried in a litter suspended from a pole that rested on the shoulders of two giant Silurians. As ever, he was swathed in his furs, his head and face invisible. Behind him filed twenty-four more litters, laden with bulging sacks. I counted them. And I knew that the magician had been filling his bags with the shining treasures of this Canaan.

Unconsciously, my hand stole over the butt of an automatic stuck in my belt. I thought quickly. Zorimi could be destroyed with a fusillade. A rush to his side would place Her of the Three Heads – that talisman worshiped in Shamman – in my possession. With it, I would be supreme, the commander of the primitive peoples. Morgo would be my linguistic ally, and together we would establish a peace with the animal kingdom. Behind all this was my secret plot, to flee from the caves with Nurri Kala.

I raised myself, lifted the gun and calculated the range. I would empty the clip into the magician’s body – thereby ending all that was evil in the caverns. My act was a justifiable one, my conscience assured me, for had I not seen Zorimi murder men in cold blood? I was but the instrument of his ultimate punishment – his executioner. An eye for an eye – a tooth for a tooth!

My finger pressed the trigger.

There was a click, but no spurt of flame, no report. The gun was jammed, useless. Throwing it away, well aware that the waters of the river had done their rusting work, I reached for my other gun – my last.

With bated breath, I aimed again. Zorimi was farther away now, close by the tunnel’s mouth. The Hoatzins flew our and circled over him but did not molest his army of men.

The trigger snapped back. There was a click. This weapon, too, was impotent. I had been counting on the weapons of civilization and now I was utterly reduced to those of Morgo’s primitive life – a knife and my bare hands. Helplessness ebbed within me, and I drew myself into the veiling grass, somehow glad that fate had not permitted me to take Zorimi’s life despite the justification. WHat were those spinners weaving for me – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos? What was my end to be? I glanced at Lacrosse’s staring eyes and shuddered.

After some time had passed, the last of Zorimi’s army disappeared into the tunnel. There were no other sounds of prowlers. I got to my feet and raced to high clearing only to find it deserted. To call to Morgo would be foolhardy. Silurians and Shammans, stragglers or a rear guard, might still be in the cave.

A low whistle drew my eyes to the top of a tree. Morgo was barely discernible from the emerald foliage. Another call gave me Nurri Kala’s hiding place.

They climbed down and listen to my tale. Morgo was amazed that Zorimi would essay an entry of the cave in which The Shaft blazed white during the daytime hours. He was puzzled as to how they protected their eyes against the blinding glare of the diamond mountain, upon which my sun beat its golden rays.

“It is too bad you did not shoot him,” he said finally. “As long as he lives, we must look forward to killing him.”

“Do not say that, Morgo,” the girl cried. “And I am glad Derro could not shoot him. It is better to avoid him – and keep your hands clean of the stain of blood.”

“He would take you for his mate!” Morgo replied, his eyes meeting hers angrily. “Besides, Nurri Kala, you do not understand the business of life – nor man’s rights in protecting himself and what he treasures. You are only a woman.”

“A woman – to serve her lord and master?” she laughed. “Is that all that life offers me, Morgo?”

“It is the way of life in the caves – to which you belong,” he said seriously.

“It is not a woman’s lot in the outer world,” I spoke up. “There, Nurri Kala, you could be a queen. All women would envy your beauty and all men would worship you.”

Morgo glared at me from lowered eyes. “The outer world of which you speak, Derro, is only a word now – a dream to us in here. You must forget, nor think of ever returning. Content yourself with ending your days in these caverns.”

“I mean to leave the caves, Morgo,” I said. “I’m not cut out for this life. And I think escape can be managed.”

Morgo’s manner changed noticeably to secret elation. He was my friend but he wanted to be rid of me. But when his eyes fell upon the ecstatic smile on Nurri Kala’s lips, he frowned with annoyance.

“Could you escape, Derro?” she asked. “Could you take us with you?”

“I think so,” I told her. “If we can reach the Bakketes again – we can fly out through the Door of Surrilana.”

“We shall never see the Bakketes, Derro,” Morgo said firmly. “We are caught in this cave you call Canaan. It is best that we stay here, where food is plenty. With only our feet, we cannot get back to Kahli or Shamman.”

“There must be a way,” I said. “How will Zorimi get back – or out of the cave? He must know of another exit besides Surrilana. Let’s follow him.”

Morgo tossed his black mane as he shook his head. “No, we are of the caves now. We will stay here.”

I was on the verge of protesting sharply because I knew that Morgo was speaking for himself and the girl whom he wanted for his mate, when we heard a crash in the underbrush. This was followed by the squeals of the Mannizan.

Morgo turned away from us, saying that it was time to seek a safe dwelling and find meat to eat. He watched herd of small Mannizans coursing through the jungle below us, and finally, telling Nurri Kala to return to her treetop, he bade me to follow him.

We were off to attack the Mannizans – with only our knives.

“I’ve thrown my guns away,” I told Morgo. “They were rusted from the dousing in the river.”

“We have our knives and our hands and our heads, Derro,” he laughed. “We will not starve.”

By a devious course, we crept upon the Mannizans whose thrashings in the brush we could hear. Morgo selected the side where the soft breeze would not betray our scent to the creatures. And presently, pushing forward through walls of pale-green vines and riotous orchids in purple and yellow, we spied our quarry. These Mannizans were like those in Kahli, smaller than the Shammans of the same family, and more wholly edible.

The little black shoe-button eyes darted along the floor of the diamond dust cave as the sharp teeth bit into leaves and strange black roots. The gray creatures were totally unaware of our imminence and, from time to time, they paused in their forage to exchange words. I wondered why they never raised their eyes from the ground, even when they talked.

“They are not as strong as the Shamman mice,” Morgo whispered, “but they are quicker and their teeth are sharp. Follow me. Then move this way.”

Morgo scaled a low-limbed tree, pulling himself upward on the gnarled vines, hand over hand in sailor fashion. I shinnied up after him.

The leaves blotted out the ten small mice, but from time to time I could see their grayish hulks, the size of a St. Bernard dog, or snapping long teeth close to the ground, white in the reflection from the diamond flooring.

“Watch me,” Morgo said, “and you will learn the best way to hunt these Mannizans. The trick is to avoid their pretended fear and attack them suddenly, scattering them. When I say the word, jump from the tree and make a loud noise. Shout.”

The Mannizans burrowed through the brush until they were directly under our tree. I saw Morgo crawl out on a far-reaching limb and lie on his side. He seemed to be waiting for the fattest Mannizan to come into range. His knife was out and I waited for him to throw it. Then I remembered that I had never seen him use such a tactic, and I wondered if he was adept at knife throwing, too.

Without a cry, Morgo dropped from the tree and straddled the Mannizan. The creature did not move. The others, startled, were immobile, and as they stared at him they bared their fierce lean fangs.

Morgo’s knife plunged into his victim’s body between the shoulders and, as the Mannizan limply fell on its side, the man ran at another. The Mannizan sprang at the same moment, surprising Morgo midway in his rush, and the two collided with a thud, Morgo throwing his arms about the rodent’s body, ducking his head from the raking teeth.

The other Mannizans bristled, their white whiskers flattened against their heads, their teeth bared. As if in a concerted effort, they started for the man was now beneath the Mannizan, pinned to the ground.

“Jump, Derro!” Morgo called out calmly. “Jump and shout!”

I yelled like a Comanche and dropped feet foremost from my branch. The Mannizans bridled, and on hearing more bloodcurdling whoops from me, turned tail and scampered off into the forest in panic, squealing and jabbering.

“Shall I help you, Morgo?” I asked fearfully

He laughed at me and I saw a twinkle in his eyes. “No, Derro. I have done this before – many times. It is play to me.”

His arm encircled the Mannizan’s neck, and despite the tugging and lashing about of the creature, Morgo took his time about delivering the death blow. I saw that he was trying to trip the creature from its footing.

His knife slipped from his hand and I cried out fearfully. He continued to smile. His legs shot out and, catching the Mannizan off balance, he threw it on its side and sank his fingers in the furry throat. Unarmed, he was pitting his might against the great rat’s. The whitish belly near the palpitating heart of the Mannizan ceased to heave in the rodent’s gasps for breath. Morgo had strangled the beast.

When he got up, he showed me how to cut a suitable branch and lash the two Mannizans to it with vines. We were to sling this pole between us and carry the meat back to the high clearing. I tried to lift one mouse and found it mighty heavy. I staggered under the load of two which Morgo shared with me on the return march.

My admiration for the way in which he leaped into the midst of the ferocious Mannizans, selecting the fattest, slaying it and then attacking a second single-handed. He did not know the meaning of fear. Supposed his knife hand had slipped? But these emergencies, that only a civilized mind would consider, were foreign to the primitive notion of battle for survival.

On rejoining Nurri Kala, Morgo told us to fetch firewood, while he skinned and butchered the Mannizans. Unquestioningly, I turned from him to seek dead wood, calling to Nurri Kala to remain where she was. It was not a woman’s job to gather wood.

“Nurri Kala will go with you, Derro,” Morgo said firmly. I resented his tone.

“I can do the job,” I said. “Besides, she’s a woman.”

“We all must work,” Morgo retorted quietly. “Women share men’s work in the caves.”

Nurri Kala said she would like to gather wood and thereby averted a situation that was growing tense between my friend and me. The girl knew the proper wood for burning and pointed it out to me. We returned to the clearing with our arms filled, and I wondered how Morgo was going to make a fire.

The dark-haired youth had skinned one Mannizan and was busy searching among the diamond chips for fire stones. How silly of me not to have thought of the flints sooner? What a poor Boy Scout I’d make!

Morgo found the proper stones, set to work putting a spark to a kindling pile of leaves, and soon I saw the bluish smoke of burning wood climbing out of the pyre he had made. He put Nurri Kala to work holding spits laden with chunks of meat over the blaze. I was sent off for more wood.

Happening to look up at a gorgeous bird of paradise darting its crimson tail of streaming feathers through the tree tops, I saw a familiar black speck high up near the white roof of this Canaan. It was a Bakkete. And I made out several others. They were searching for us. They had not been destroyed in the debacle of the blinding light.

I ran back to the clearing. It was deserted. Morgo called to me from a covered glade of sprouting giant leaves.

“Bakketes!” I cried to him. “They’re in this cave!”

He beckoned to me and I ran toward the glade.

“They’ll see the fire,” I said. “But call to them, Morgo. Let them know where we are!”

He shook his head, and out of the corner of my eye I was surprised to see that the fire had been put out. Nurri Kala’s face was tense with anxiety.

“Call to them, Morgo!” I repeated. “The fire is out!”

I put it out,” he said in a low voice. “I do not want the Bakketes to find us.”

I was amazed. “Why not? They mean escape to Kahli – the outer world, perhaps!”

His eyes were smoldering but his voice remained even. “I do not want to leave Canaan, Derro. We are all staying here. It is the best cave. Come in here before the Bakketes see you.”

I understood. He did not want to risk the chance of losing Nurri Kala to me – and the possible success of my plan to leave the caves entirely. He knew I wanted the girl – wanted to take her with me to my own world.

“I don’t mean to stay here,” I said hotly. “If you won’t call the Bakketes, then I’ll do it.”

I ran back to the clearing and to the best of my ability, tried to imitated Morgo’s schoolboy cry. It was a dismal failure, but I made plenty of racket. The forests echoed with it.

Morgo darted from his cover, leaving Nurri Kala crouching behind the giant leaves. He came up to me and let a hand fall on my shoulder.

“Derro,” he said, “we have been friends. You have saved my life. I owe much to you. But now we must decide something.”

“I want the Bakketes!” I snapped. “You can stay here if you want to!” My temper was mounting.

“Will you go alone – with them – if I call them down?” His eyes were transfixing mine. There was pleading and determination in them.

For the first time he betrayed himself to me with words. I shook my head. “If Nurri Kala will come with me, I mean to make her my wife.”

“You cannot have her, Derro. I love her.” He spoke simply, with anger, like a child. And he spoke as a man who meant what he said, too.

“And I love her, Morgo!” I said firmly, adding, “but let her choose between us.”

Again he shook his head. “She is a woman, Derro, and she likes strange things. You are strange to her. You have told her of greater worlds – places she would like to see. I cannot let her go – because I need her. I belong to these caves – and so does she. We have gone too far in life to change our ways of living. We would be unhappy in your world, Derro. It is so different – so strange to us of the caves.”

I turned my back on him and, seeing a Bakkete wheeling lower in the air above us, I shouted to it. Morgo promptly clapped his hand over my mouth and pinned me to him with his other arm. He started to drag me backward to the hidden glade.

Struggling, I flung myself from him and met his blazing eyes. My hand went for my knife. I did not mean to die like Lacrosse in the midst of the wealth I’d found. I wanted to enjoy it – and to live the life I knew best – the life of the outer world. And I wanted Nurri Kala.

Morgo saw the knife flash in my hand, and he drew his own.

“I do not wish to kill you, Derro,” he whispered huskily, “but I will not let you have Nurri Kala. She belongs to me.”

“By what right?” I blazed at him.

“It is the law of the caves. Man selects his mate and takes her. Nurri Kala is to be my woman. I love her. She is my kind – not yours. Consider that, Derro, my friend, and do not let us fight.”

Nurri Kala was standing between us, gently pushing us apart. Her eyes were wet with tears and to each of us she shook her head, pleadingly.

“Do not fight! Do not fight!” she sobbed. “You, who are great friends!”

“Then choose one of us!” I commanded her.

Morgo watched her apprehensively. I could see his heart pummeling his breast with mighty, excited blows. My own was going like a trip hammer. The girl met our inquisitive gazes, shuddered at the sight of our bared knives and closed her eyes.

Which one of us would she choose?

To Be Continued!