Exploring the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs

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THE BRUTE AND A BAR OF GOLD

RICK JOHNSON

How the bloody blazes did I get myself into this mess, you ask? Well, lads, there I sat on the high rock, baking under the hot African sun, waiting for the next attack.

My opponent, a gorrilloid, or rather something that looked like a cross between a gorilla and a human, sat at the base staring at me. Bleeding from a half dozen bullet holes, the creature growled his determination to exterminate this foolish human who had trespassed his land, shot him, and now cowered just out of reach atop a tumble of rock, shivering in his boots.

"Hey, me bucko," I said to the beast man, "why don't you run along like a good little monster and let me leave with my ill-gotten gains?" The reply I received wasn't speech, or a beast's growl, but it was angry sounding. I thought of the bar of gold in my back pack.

Carnarvon and Carter, who discovered the tomb of King Tut, were little more than glorified grave robbers. And wasn't Greystoke who raided the Gold Vaults of Opar a simple thief? So why should I think of myself as being anything better than they? That bar of gold weighed heavy.

It all started centuries ago I guess. I am Irish. Frankly, like the characters in Burroughs' biographies, I can claim noble blood in my veins, some of which still leaks from my current wound. Unlike his heros, I am of somewhat less than heroic character and stature. In fact, this expedition is probably the bravest thing I ever did--or stupidest!

My family claims ancestry back to the great High King, Brian Boru. Of course, most of the Irish race makes that claim, especially those of us who bear the name O'Brien, "Descended from Brian." But in my case, it's true. My grandfather was a noble of Orange Antrim. My grandmother a noble of Green Claire, and as eldest child should have inherited and from her to mother and then to me, but excommunicants cannot inherit titles. As my dear grandmother had been disowned by her kin there went all access to the Antrim family wealth. Sometimes I wonder if grandmother had been excommunicated and disowned because she became pregnant with my mother outside matrimony or was she excommunicated and disowned because she was insane?

Well, my father left us at an early age. Mother said it was because of us but I really think that he simply couldn't handle living with her and had let all the gossip about insanity in the family get to him. Maybe it was just wanderlust. He went to Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Panama and other places, ever the heroic adventurer. I was his greatest disappointment, having shown no inclination to participate in manly things. In the long run it did not matter overmuch--an absent father and a mother who did act strangely at times, very strangely. Mother and I lived a poor existence at best, starved all the rest of the time because we were poor, even by Irish standards and that is poor indeed! Poverty had driven me to this place and time. Seeking gold that no one believed existed. Fighting a beast that shouldn't exist. Poverty had placed me on this sun-baked rock wondering how much longer I would exist.

I'm afraid that it is my Irish nature, in all its maudlin glory, that takes its time to tell a tale. We Irish love a good story and the more it meanders across the countryside, the better the enjoyment. I am no different in that trait of my ancestors though, at least, I haven't indulged the telling with the usual embellishment of reciting 500 years of family history, complete with names and deeds, to preface this present recounting of events. However, the how and why–the motivation--which brought me to this pretty turn is necessary, so please accommodate me for a moment longer.

I was in school at the time. My days were spent avoiding the bully boys who would beat me daily if they could find me. I usually hid in the one place where they wouldn't be caught dead, the school library. It was there, while perusing the older books, that I found Engineer's Dreams by Willy Ley. Within that tome was a short paper by a forgotten Nazi engineer who had planned to dam the Congo River after the Third Reich had conquered the world. The original plan was to dam the water's exit points and simply wait for the rains to turn central Africa into an inland sea. By itself, this article meant nothing but the conceptual drawing of the resulting fresh water sea lit the proverbial light bulb!

A moment of stunned inspiration boggled my young mind. Looking at that map, while hiding amongst the dusty stacks of the ancient school library, I KNEW where fabulous Ophir lay! The land of gold! For decades treasure hunters had sought Ophir, once found by early Egyptians and later described by Haggard and Burroughs and Solomon. The city of wealth unimaginable, long sought after for centuries, nay millennia, and few had found the place and even fewer mentioned it save under the influence of drink.

To see if that moment of insight was possible I located every reference on the subject at hand. I read Landstrom's books on Egyptian shipbuilding. I calculated how far the ships of the Pharaohs could travel in the allotted time. I traced their course down the west coast of Africa and up the Zambezi and into the Nazi engineer's Congo Sea--and there Ophir would be!

Years later I knew where Ophir lay. Over yonder and well within sight, its crumbling towers just visible above the low hill and line of vegetation. Of course my journey to Ophir had not been easy. It had taken weeks of hard research. It had taken a few years to grow old enough to leave school. It had taken even longer to save up enough money and to work my way on tramp steamers down the coast of Africa. Poor mother never seemed to notice what I was about during those years of preparation, but I rarely worried about her general well-being because there were church ladies who would visit from time to time. No, mother, I suspect, probably did not realize her little boy was not in Ireland. I sent her a postcard when I signed off the crew manifest of my last ship. I did whatever work I could to add to my meager savings to purchase a well-used carbine, a bayonet, canteen, and provisions. Then by foot I entered the heart of Africa in search of gold.

The monster looked up at me sitting on the rock. Great bloody bastard he was! Even now I don't know what I wanted more: the bar of gold in my pack to build a family fortune and end our poverty or to escape from the hot African sun with my life.

Adventure! It all sounds so wonderful while reading Haggard, Burroughs, Polo and a dozen others. As a boy lost in the library–one more day without a black eye!–I imagined myself sharing the adventures of great heroes, performing great deeds and becoming famous enough to have my life ghostwritten as were the lives of Greystoke, Quartermain and the others. To have my father finally acknowledge and admire me.

The telling grows long and the beastie is growing impatient. Suffice it to say that once I reached Africa the finding of Ophir was easy, so easy I wonder if I was fated to do so. I recall my Great Aunt Hepsibar, the infamous Irish Witch of Claire telling me that I was doomed to accomplish great things. "Doomed" she said. Not blessed, not cursed, not fated--doomed!

Here I go again, talking as if I were the insane one. Perhaps mental illness is hereditary? Or maybe I am just suffering the famous Irish melancholy. Well, the important thing is to get out and use some of this gold to finance a therapist. No the important thing is to get out alive! It was only the day before yesterday that I stood on this same rock to see for the first time the overgrown domes of Ophir shining in the sunlight. So full of confidence was I then. How long ago? Two bloody days is all it took?

Well, I tried to find a way into Ophir but couldn't. The jungle was too overgrown to find the city walls. According to Greystoke's biographer, there was a rent in the wall through which one could pass. And if I could avoid the degenerate inhabitants and if I could find the gold vault and if I could get the gold out….

What I did find was the back door. A cliff overlooking the lake and there, a couple dozen feet up I saw a shadow that didn't move as the sun changed position. A cave! Perhaps the very cave that Greystoke used as an escape from Ophir?

The cliff face had ample handholds so I had no difficulty climbing to the opening. Within minutes I was on the ledge looking inward. My flashlight revealed a natural fissure that had been widened by small rock falls over the centuries. The rubble filled, and to an extent, leveled the floor. I could not believe my luck! But then again, I could not believe my luck when I came to a section where an earthquake had sealed the way. The question now was "how much of the tunnel was blocked by the quake?" If only a few feet, I could clear the path and raid the vaults and be rich! But if the blockage went on for more, then the entire roof could be weakened and any attempt to dig could cause a cave-in that would bury me.

I shone my torch upwards seeking the roof and saw that the detritus seemed to end a few feet above my head. So, climbing up, I was able to discover that some of the fall had been cleared. Not all of it but enough to see that the fall was less than a dozen feet.

Rather than attempt to clear the entire path, I settled for removing enough stone from the top of the fall to give a crawl way. An hour later I was on the other side. The way beyond twisted once, twice, then perhaps a thousand feet in, and certainly well under ancient Ophir, I entered a great vaulted cavern.

"Empty!" The bloody chamber was empty! I spent a fruitless few minutes throwing a silent temper tantrum, afraid that should I scream my disappointment, which I truly wished to do, the echoes might bring the inhabitants of the city down upon me. So I eventually calmed down

"Greystoke found a tunnel that led to a well. Then when he went down, he found the jewel room. If I can't have gold, I'll settle for diamonds!" So I searched and found the shaft that went up and down then leaned as far into the shaft as I dared. Both down and up showed an opening and as I knew that down led to the jewel vault, I decided to explore up and see what he had missed. The walls were unfinished and as many of the stones projected outward, I was easily able to climb up to the next tier.

Another gold vault! My bonanza had been found! The Ophirans had apparently built their vaults in tiers. Greystoke had only emptied the main one. From the looks of this one, he probably hadn't realized that this one existed. But then, he had never been one to carry an electric torch around either. The brilliance of the stacked gold bars was subdued by a thick layer of dust. It was instantly obvious that even the Ophirans had not visited this vault in many years.

I suppose no man is immune to greed. I can tell you that this man certainly was not. For long moments all I could do was force breath into my body as I stared at the wealth of Ophir. Gold. Gold bars. Uniform in size. Glittering, shiny gold in bars which weighed about forty pounds each. Cool, hard, smooth gold formed two inches by eighteen inches long laid upon the rock in four rows and each row rose three feet high and extended twenty feet long. I looked at 468 bars per row times four rows equaling 1,872 bars times forty pounds each… over a million ounces! No matter what currency I chose for calculating my newfound wealth that was a lot of money!

I tried three bars of gold in my backpack. I could lift, but knew I could not carry it far. I tried two bars. Eighty pounds was more manageable, just about the weight of a young lass–and I realized carrying a young lass on my back all the way to the coast was out of the question. One bar. Six hundred forty ounces. Wealth enough for now. I lowered the back pack to the main vault by rope and swung it inside. Climbing down, I was soon beyond the rock fall and on the ledge. Night had fallen. The cave was a better place to camp than the open forest. I didn't sleep much that night. My pack had been my bed pillow during my journey. When my head lay upon that bar of gold, dreams of what I would do when I returned to Ireland fevered my brain. Yet I did eventually sleep. The morning sun woke me. Half afraid the vault had been but a dream of desire rather than reality I opened the back pack. There it lay, sparking a ruddy light in the morning sun. I felt like singing!

Later, as I made my way away from Ophir, I ran into the gorilloid. Or rather the beast man came looking for me because I had been stupid and had been singing, perhaps with the gentle madness with affects my dear old mother. Had I kept quiet the creature wouldn't have heard me and I could have vanished in secrecy. The great brute stepped out into my path and I stopped in mid-stride, my gut all knotted and cold. My father had told me that half of all adventurers die on their first adventure. By simply surviving that first adventure, one is automatically promoted to the top fifty percent. Doing something stupid like singing surely placed me in the lower half!

The gorilloid was tall, almost seven feet walking erect. He wore a loincloth encrusted with diamonds and golden bands around his arms–muscled arms that seemed thicker than my chest. Gold and diamond necklaces glittered on his massive chest. The creature carried the biggest battle-axe I had ever seen outside a museum and was no light-weight African axe like the natives used but something that belonged on a medieval battlefield; a demon's tool designed to open Irish armour to remove the succulent man-meat within. The monster was covered with hair and had a pointed head that would have elicited comments of "pinhead" from my former school chum tormentors, but only once if said in the presence of this gigantic brute.

That was how my little playmate and I first me. Now that I have had some time on my rock to more or less safely observe the grand fiend below, I see that his feet are definitely ape-like. His grip on that axe shows opposition in his thumb so he is definitely not an ape but neither is he human. Possibly some offshoot of A. Robustus? An African Bigfoot or Himalayan Yeti on vacation in the sun? Not only was the creature twice my size, he had long sharp teeth, red-rimmed eyes, and a surly attitude. Nothing would give him greater pleasure than to split me with that muckin' great axe!

When the rogue stepped into the path I raised my carbine and sent a half dozen .30 caliber rounds into his chest. The beast had staggered but instead of falling and dying as would any decently polite fellow, the grossly oversized monstrosity shook himself like a dog shakes water, growled in a terrifying way, and came at me.

I freely admit my father would probably be very ashamed at what I did next--but I wasn't immediately worried about dear old dad's approval. I turned and ran!

In the movies the victim always runs from the monster or maniac. They look back to see how far ahead they are, only to trip over a root or leaf or their own clumsy feet. Instead of getting up and emulating an Olympic sprinter, the victim rolls over in time see the monster kill them. I wasn't like that. I figured that be the dire Nemesis an inch or a league behind, as long as my feet were moving he was still behind me that's what mattered.

I imagine that to a disinterested observer the chase must have been comical. Me, the victim, staggered under the load of a gold-filled backpack I was too stubborn to chuck and he, the terrible pursuer, staggered from multiple wounds. Both of us moved in slow jerky motion. All I wanted was to be out of there with my gold and my life so I kept on. What drove the monster, besides perhaps a meal out of my thigh, I did not know. Fear is a marvelous incentive and by the time I ran up against the rock upon which I now rest, I was some twenty to thirty feet ahead of the beast man. When I reached the top I raised my weapon, took a deep breathe, let half of it out, and proceeded to send round after round of copper-clad lead into my opponent until the bolt locked back to signal an empty magazine.

Finally the horrific creature fell to his knees. For a moment it appeared a confused expression crossed the hairy thing's heavy brow. Then, with a loud thump! the gorilloid fell flat on his face. My heart could pound for only so long, else burst from my chest. The longer that great beast lay still, the better I felt. However, not for me was the foolish act of going down to poke the supposedly dead monster only to find myself the victim of its last act of destruction. No! I was on the rock there I would stay to observe the scene.

A moment later well glad was I to have such caution, for with a groan and moan the seemingly indestructible thing rolled over and sat up! Turning his head, his red eyes locked upon me. I sensed a malevolence in that gaze that, quite frankly, gave me pause. The gorilloid slowly got up and approached the rock. By then I had fixed my bayonet to the barrel of the empty rifle. As the creature began to climb I poked him in the eye, causing him to scream and back away. How very odd! I had sent fifteen rounds of high velocity projectiles into that tenacious body and what finally earned respect from the beast man was a simple sharp object. Life is really strange at times and proof that the gods must truly have a warped sense of humor.

So now we now stand, and your patience I appreciate most sincerely, for the tale has been longer than necessary, though I make no apology for without the full-some narrative and detail one cannot know what happened there outside the ancient lost city of Ophir. There stood yours truly with forty pounds of gold I could spend, still within sight of the richest city in history, trapped by a creature from another age who perversely refused to die. Obviously my bullets had seriously injured the beast man, but had not found a vital spot. Yet, I wasn't about to get close enough to try to stab the beast for the coup de grace. So, I baked in the hot African sun and thought the problem out. As long as my adversary occupied the terrain at the base of the rock mount I had plenty of time to think. Meanwhile, I had a canteen of water, some food and enough wealth to buy … well, forty pounds of gold could buy me a house, a car, and maybe even convince a cheerleader to date me.

It was fantasizing about that cheerleader, such as those lovely young girls with red lips and rounded bodies who snubbed me at school, that almost was near my undoing. Once my concentration wavered, wondering at the warmth of a supple body held close and the scent of perfumed hair in my nostrils, the huge beast took advantage. The gorilloid threw his diamond-encrusted axe at me. He missed… almost. Though I had been dreaming of things yet to be, I saw the flash of diamonds in the sun and barely twisted away. The keen blade ripped along my ribcage before striking the pack and bouncing off the gold within to fall with a horrendous clang! at my feet.

I had never had more than a paper cut before and the pain was like a million fire ants crawling across my chest. A cut, such as I received from the monster's savage attack, feels nothing like those almost forgotten bruises from school bully fists. I gasped and almost fell off the rock into the fiend's not-so-loving arms but I managed to catch myself. Well, the great creature had finally done it. I was growing weary of his constant attention. I removed the backpack and checked my wound. A superficial cut, but damn painful anyway. My first battle scar. Something to show the ladies, provided I lived that long.

I washed my wound and bandaged my ribs with gauze and tape and laughed at the beast. "Ha! Ye Skellum! Ye great bloody damn fool! You almost had me! But now, you sullen clod, I'm armed and you aren't! Come closer so I can put out your other eye and ventilate that thick pointy head of yours!" I almost unzipped and peed on him, but was merely a thought of anger as I would truly be too embarrassed to go that far.

I am here to tell you the monster did not appreciate the taunt, or perhaps the pain it surely must have felt from all the bullets had deranged it: Regardless of what motivated the gorilloid he screamed and charged. He almost made it to the top. Almost! With both hands and all my strength I jabbed the bayonet into his face. I had reloaded, my last five rounds of ammunition, and pulled the trigger again and again. A great gout of blood and flesh flew from the back of the creature's neck. Falling, the monster grabbed at the rifle and tried to drag me down but, unfortunately for him, he wrapped his hand around the bayonet. As he slid down the rocks all the beast man succeeded in doing was to sever his fingers from hand as he fell backwards.

So, there he lay prostrate, a leviathan brute man of the jungle, apparently no longer animated by any spark of life. Cor, lads, I gasped for breath and watched for a twitch, a motion, anything to indicate the battle was over. It was then I realized there was so much blood! I never dreamed a body could hold so much blood! I leaned over and was sick. I had never killed before, other than flies after my porridge, and didn't like the feeling one bit.

I wiped and rinsed my mouth. The beast had not moved. He lay as he had fallen. There was no rise or fall to that massive chest, no froth from nose or mouth, though that red ruin between receding chin and pointed head could hardly still be referred to as a mouth and nose. Yet, so relentless had been my late foe that I waited. And waited. Finally, as a multitude of flies settled onto the ghastly wounds to lay eggs that would become maggots, I decided it was time to be stupid again. I climbed down and poked at the beast man with the rifle. Nothing. He was deader than road kill. I stepped back and looked the corpse over now that my vision was clear of fear. Definitely not the gorilla it resembled. Yet not a man either. The head was pointed but that point seemed to be little more than muscle for that tremendously powerful jaw. No claws but fingernails and his feet definitely were ape-like. The skin was black, as was the short, straight fur covering his body.

There had been intelligence in the brute's actions–intelligence combined with a beast's ferocity so I counted him as human despite external appearances. This then, wasn't the degenerate Oparians described by Greystoke but rather the inhabitant of the Valley of the Palace of Diamonds. He was of a race that Greystoke or Burroughs mistakenly called a gorilla but was probably another offshoot of the human tree. The same tree that produced Bigfoot, Yeti, Hairy Man, and the English race. What did Burroughs call the ape-man's jungle family? Mangani? I shook my head knowing there were no answers. The dead creature was in no condition to supply any, had he been so disposed to engage in scholarly discussion.

Well, lads, I then did what any self-respecting adventurer would have done, I stripped the body. The diamonds set into the leather alone were worth more than the gold in my backpack. The huge ax was decorated in a king's ransom. Either would finance my return trip. The gold, that I take home to mother.

I strapped the war-ax to my pack. I had three rounds of ammunition. A bayonet wiped clean of blood. A side that ached abominably. The sun never seemed brighter, nor birds sing so sweet. Off in the distance I heard baboons hooting. Never had air tasted so sweet.

I don't know why, but I saluted the beast man before heading for home. I turned away from his sightless eyes gazing up into the blue dome of African skies.

Finally rich, finally knowing that the next time those bullies found me, whoever they might be for the rest of my life, they wouldn't find it so easy to harass the adventurer with strength under his belt and wealth in his pocket. A man changed by adventure. A man with wealth enough to care for his dear mother, who turned out to be not insane but crafty wise to get the government to help a "poor weak-wits old woman" raise her child at public expense. Mother has helped with my education...sometimes strength of arm and will is not enough, subterfuge is a tool that can be useful, too.

What I found and won has made my life comfortable, 'tis true, but more than that is the telling of a true story that would cause even my father to look at me with some measure of respect.